Palm Oil Grown for Good: Protecting our ecosystems and wildlife, and how consumers can contribute

Regional Forest Governance Expert Asia
November 24, 2020
Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in Economics and Business Journalism
November 24, 2020
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News  07 October 2020

Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, representing 35% of all global vegetable oils used and found in over 50% of products on supermarket shelves. However, many consumers either don’t know the entire story about palm oil or associate it with harmful environmental impact and don’t want to purchase products that have palm oil as a listed ingredient. What may not be clearly understood is that consumers can choose to support sustainably-sourced palm oil and use their buying power to support positive and environmental change.

Ensuring Sustainable Palm Agriculture

The mission of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is to create a space where palm oil agriculture and the environment can co-exist. RSPO has united almost 5,000 members from conservation organisations, oil palm growers, consumer goods manufacturers (like L’Oreal and Unilever), zoos representing all sectors and stakeholders involved in the palm oil supply chain. RSPO has created rigorous standards for oil palm growers called the RSPO Principles and Criteria and the RSPO Independent Smallholder Standard. These mandatory requirements are in place to halt deforestation by protecting primary and secondary forests, ensure biodiverse ecosystems are preserved, prevent wildfires and avoid harm to wildlife.

Sustainable palm oil halts deforestation

To be RSPO certified, oil palm growers are prohibited from clearing any forests that are identified as having High Conservation Value or have a High Carbon Stock. This includes protecting primary forests, meaning forests that consist of native trees and species with little to no human disturbances. If High Conservation Value and High Carbon Stock forests are identified within the area of land the company or famer owns or has rights to, RSPO certified grower members must also protect and enhance these areas. This ensures that the carbon absorbed and held by the forests and their soils is retained, and their ability to retain more carbon in the future is protected. It also helps to protect important ecosystems that are home to wildlife.

How does sustainable palm oil protect wildlife?

When oil palm is grown according to RSPO standards, growers follow many practices to ensure that wildlife are protected and can coexist with human and agricultural environments. A few examples are:

  • preventing illegal hunting or collecting on plantations and connected areas of biodiversity
  • identifying, protecting and/or enhancing forest connectivity important for biodiversity, ecosystem services, or watershed protection
  • ensuring that wildlife corridors (area of habitat connecting wildlife populations separated by human activities or structures) are conserved
  • protecting and managing important conservation areas including watercourses
  • establishing “buffer zones” around areas important to wildlife, ecosystems, biodiversity, etc. allowing for these areas to remain conserved and less impacted by human activities
  • and developing measures to resolve human-wildlife conflicts.

recent study comparing certification standards revealed that the RSPO Principles and Criteria demonstrated the best results in lowering biodiversity impact. Biodiversity is defined by the number of varieties of species, including plants, insects and wildlife, living in an ecosystem. High levels of biodiversity are important for the health of ecosystems and wildlife. RSPO Certified growers are required to take measures to conserve and/or enhance biodiversity beyond the boundaries of their land rights, including identifying, protecting and/or enhancing the connectivity of forest areas that are identified as important for biodiversity.

How does sustainable palm oil prevent wildfires?

Use of fire for land clearing is a common practice for many farmers around the world, but RSPO certified oil palm growers are prohibited from using fire to clear their land. While it may serve as a cheap and convenient way to clear weeds and unwanted growth to make way for the desired crops, this practice releases harmful smoke into the area, releases carbon emissions and often spreads beyond what is intended. This has led to widespread fires and a thick haze in many parts of the world where this is practiced. RSPO certified growers go beyond the prevention of fire on their own land, as they also engage with adjacent stakeholders on fire prevention and control measures. The RSPO also actively monitors, with satellite technology, all detected fire hotspots within both RSPO certified and non-certified oil palm agricultural areas globally.

Does sustainable palm oil reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Combined, all global agriculture contributes to 12% amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while deforestation contributes 6.5%. Human caused GHG emissions, or actions that reduce nature’s ability to absorb GHGs, are a major contributor to global climate change. A comprehensive study showed that RSPO Certified Sustainable Palm Oil has 35% lower climate change impact compared to non-certified palm oil. Oil palm agriculture following RSPO standards decreases GHG emissions in many ways, such as protecting valuable peatlands, which are a type of wetland that store more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined. RSPO Certified growers are also required to identify and calculate their GHG emissions and implement plans to reduce or minimise emissions. This is monitored through the RSPO PalmGHG Calculator and publicly reported.

Achieving a sustainable palm oil supply chain, which respects and protects natural ecosystems and wildlife, is a global challenge. People involved in oil palm agriculture can make a positive impact by following RSPO standards. As consumers, we have a big role to play as well. We can vote with our spending to tell farmers following sustainable practices that we support them, and to tell companies making the products we are purchasing that they should too.

To take action that ensures no wildlife is harmed, you can look for the RSPO Trademark on the products you purchase or ask your favourite brands if they are using sustainable palm oil. Thank you for helping us make a difference and leave a lasting legacy for future generations.