The EU needs a better palm oil policy

As you probably know, palm oil is used an ingredient in a very wide range of products, especially detergents and processed food. I’ve noticed that palm oil seems to be even more common in products sold in EU countries than in the US. This is borne out by palm oil import data – the Netherlands alone imports more palm oil than the US (Indonesia, which supplies more than half of the world’s palm oil used to be a Dutch colony). The problem is that the EU’s standard for sustainable palm oil is inadequate – and I think this can be stated as a scientific truth rather than a mere opinion.

Palm oil production has a very negative impact on the environment when it entails deforestation and the burning of peat land to make way for palm oil plantations (which are mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia). These changes in land-use are responsible for a large chunk of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and species extinctions. The EU’s policy is based on the notion that palm oil certified by the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is sustainable, in that it mitigates these destructive changes in land-use.

According to the IPCC’s 6th assessment report (Spring ’22), 22% of GHG emissions are due to agriculture, forestry and other land use (AFOLU). About half of these AFOLU emissions are from land use change, predominantly from deforestation.

Normally, I expect the EU to have fairly strong environmental policies, compared to the global average. For example, insecticides known as neonics have been banned in the EU (much to the chagrin of Syngenta and Bayer) while they continue to be used in the US, Brazil and many other countries. So, it’s understandable if Europeans assume that the palm oil in products they buy in EU stores is actually sustainable. After all, the issue has been in the spotlight for decades now.

Aerial view of a palm oil plantation. Photo by Ihsan Adityawarman on

The EU policy on sustainable palm oil, based on RSPO certification, is inadequate

The EU has basically set a standard for sustainable palm oil that’s based on RSPO certification. In other words, if 93% of the palm oil imported into the EU is RSPO-certified then the EU scores this as 93% of the way towards total sustainability. I’ve previously ranked palm oil certifications, concluding that the RSPO is the weakest of them. This was based on findings such as those from a 2018 paper titled, Evaluating the effectiveness of palm oil certification in delivering multiple sustainability objectives, which concluded that:

No significant difference was found between certified and non-certified plantations for any of the sustainability metrics investigated.

The sustainability metrics that were examined included the number orangutans and fires. There were actually fewer orangutans on the RSPO-certified plantations to begin with, and their population declined at least as fast as on the non-certified plantations (even faster, perhaps, although the difference was not statistically significant).

However, I wanted to revisit this issue to check if RSPO certification is better than I had previously thought, so I went back to the scientific literature on the topic. A paper published in one of the most reputable journals (PNAS) by an assortment of scientists from multiple universities (from Hawaii to UC Berkeley) best fits the bill as being an objective evaluation of the issue. Also published in 2018, it’s titled Effect of oil palm sustainability certification on deforestation and fire in Indonesia.

Screenshot of the title and author list of the 2018 paper titled, Effect of oil palm sustainability certification on deforestation and fire in Indonesia.

For a casual reader of the paper (who may not go beyond the first page) it may appear that the key information in the abstract is this:

While forest loss and fire continued after RSPO certification, certified palm oil was associated with reduced deforestation. Certification lowered deforestation by 33% from a counterfactual of 9.8 to 6.6% per year.

However, the next two sentences cast these findings in a different light:

Nevertheless, most plantations contained little residual forest when they received certification. As a result, by 2015, certified areas held less than 1% of forests remaining within Indonesian oil palm plantations. Moreover, certification had no causal impact on forest loss in peatlands or active fire detection rates.

What does this mean? The rate of deforestation is lower on RSPO-certified plantations, but there is virtually no forest on these plantations to begin with. It appears that palm oil plantation owners are choosing to certify areas that were deforested prior to certification. In addition to this, the RSPO standards don’t require palm oil growers to identify areas of high conservation value (HCV), so there’s no way to remotely map these areas to determine if deforestation is taking place.

The paper delivers the message that the RSPO is not working, but it’s delivered in a scientific language that may not be picked up on by some journalists or legislators. Palm oil growers are basically gaming the system by certifying land that had almost no forest at the start of the certification period.

Companies typically proceeded in chronological order, such that the oldest plantations, which are least likely to contain forest, were certified first.

Our research indicates that palm oil producers currently have few incentives to expand the area of forest under their control. Thus, it is difficult to align individual corporate decisions with broader conservation goals, such as halting tropical deforestation

What’s the solution for sustainable palm oil?

The authors of the PNAS paper point out that an effective certification scheme for palm oil should (of course) involve quantitative metrics such as the percentage of native forest cover on farms. The RSPO, acknowledging that improvement of its own standards is needed, launched RSPO NEXT in 2016. RSPO NEXT is for palm oil growers who really don’t engage in deforestation or planting on peatland – it’s an almost comical admission that their normal certification is simply not working. By spring 2017, a Colombian palm oil supplier had signed up for RSPO NEXT but none from Indonesia or Malaysia had joined. It seems that the idea has fizzled out since then – I don’t see much on the topic over the last five years (or any labels on packaging).

While the RSPO recommends palm oil growers should avoid planting on peatland, RSPO NEXT bans any peatland development after 16 November 2015. – RSPO (bold emphasis, mine).

In a recent post on chocolate and deforestation, I covered some of the essentials on the topic of growing tropical crops while maintaining native forests and biodiversity as much as possible. Primates (especially large ones like orangutans) can’t make homes in monoculture plantations such as palm oil or cocoa. However, conserving native trees can help maintain habitats without negatively impacting crop yields. In the case of cacao, around 30% shade cover represents an effective balance between crop yields and climate mitigation, climate adaptability, and biodiversity. I just came across another study demonstrating that cacao yields can be maintained at up to complete (100%) shade coverage when managed well. It turns out that the cacao tree leaves on shaded plantations last twice as long due to protection from atmospheric drought.

If anyone knows of published data on palm oil yields under various levels of shade cover versus full sun, please share it in the comments below. I suspect that this information would encourage oil palm farmers to preserve/plant more native trees.

A certification to better ensure sustainability of palm oil should, at a minimum, include metrics such as the percentage of non-crop (shade-cover) trees on a plantation. This could be similar to the Smithsonian’s Bird-friendly certification – one of the best certifications for coffee (it also stipulates organic certification). An alternative to preserving native shade-cover trees among the crop (land sharing) is to completely set aside a portion of the farm as native habitat (land sparing). Even small pockets of wild land can make a big difference to survival of native species. See this post (and the comment below it) for more on this topic and on the shade requirements for Rainforest Alliance’s certification of coffee. The closest thing to any of this for palm oil is Palm Done Right, which is not so much a certification as “a movement to educate people that palm can be grown for good, 100% Organic, ethically sourced, deforestation free, fair and social, and wildlife friendly.”

Signs highlighting the benefits of Smithsonian Certified Bird Friendly Coffee. Benefits include a 20-fold increase in bird species, relative to sun-grown coffee farms.
Signs in a Marin (CA) store highlighting the benefits of Smithsonian Certified Bird Friendly Coffee

Bottom line: We need a certification method that includes a requirement for shade cover / spared land, monitored by farm coordinates (which also identifies areas of high conservation value). Including native shade trees and other plants is not just the best way to conserve habitats and reduce GHG emissions but can also protect crops from droughts (and insect attacks), which are projected to increase in frequency due to climate change.

Growing oil palms in polycultures supports biodiversity

In one of many examples of research on the impact of palm oil on biodiversity, Malaysian researchers studied bird populations on oil palm monoculture versus polycultures. Here are a few quotes from it:

Smallholders usually grow different crop plants alongside oil palms for domestic consumption or sale. Crops such as banana, coconut, tapioca, and pineapple can be grown alongside oil palm trees. Such practice may increase habitat heterogeneity that is the key for maintaining biodiversity and also provide additional food sources in the case of fruit crops.

Monoculture farming is pervasive in industrial oil palm agriculture, including those RSPO plantations certified as sustainably managed. This farming practice does not promote the maintenance of farmland biodiversity.

Bird species richness was significantly greater in polyculture than that of monoculture smallholdings.

Images showing the difference in plant diversity between a native rainforest and an oil palm plantation.

Seeking out palm oil free products

Consumers are (somewhat) aware of the importance of supporting shade-grown coffee and shade-grown chocolate – the same needs to happen for palm oil. In the meantime, I suggest avoiding most products made from palm oil even if RSPO-certified. An exception would be products made from organic palm oil, sourced through a program such as Palm Done Right.

Products rich in fat or detergent are most likely to contain the largest amount of palm oil. I’ve previously looked at some vegan butters in Europe (Naturli’ and plant-based Dairygold) and in the US (Miyoko’s) that are palm oil free. In an upcoming post, I’ll take a look at another product that can be very high in palm oil – soap.

European consumers should be aware of the fact that the EU’s policy on palm oil (RSPO certification) does not meet our global goals for sustainability, biodiversity, habitat conservation, land-use, or climate change.

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