Can palm oil be sustainable?

Fresh from publishing his paper for the Science of Total Environment, Dr Roberto Cazzolla Gatti provides an interview with Orangutan Alliance regarding his recent paper and the commonly asked question around palm oil and sustainability.

Dr. Cazzolla Gatti is a Research Associate at the Forest Advanced Computing & Artificial Intelligence (FACAI) Lab of the Department of Natural Sciences and Forestry (FNR) of Purdue University in the USA and Associate Professor at the Tomsk State University in Russia. He is also a member of the Species Survival Commission and World Commission on Protected Areas for the IUCN.

His research used the most updated data available to science including those from Global Forest Watch, Greenpeace, Indonesian Ministry of Forestry, the RSPO over 15 years in Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea as well as satellite images to understand whether the idea that palm oil can be sustainable is fiction or reality.

His team’s research is alarming – showing that current sustainability schemes were inefficient as concrete means to stop the degradation of forests and the loss of biodiversity. In other words, he maintains that to protect the environment, certified palm oil should not be considered sustainable.

His research shows that from 2001 to 2016 about 40% of the area present in the current RSPO concessions suffered a significant habitat degradation (caused by deforestation, fires or other damage to the trees) before being converted into oil plantations and that this loss of tree cover occurred both before and after the start of the RSPO agreement (2004) and the POIG initiative (2013). The result is that the certified concessions do not differ much from those not certified and certified production of palm oil was not completely free from deforestation. 

In 2004 the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was launched by a group made up of companies, banks, investors and non-governmental environmental organizations (NGOs) to create a market for the sustainable palm oil. The goal of the RSPO (which now includes over 3,000 members) is to develop a set of environmental and social criteria that companies must adhere to produce certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO). According to the RSPO, when these criteria are correctly applied, the negative impact of palm oil cultivation on the environment and communities in the producing regions can be reduced to a minimum.

However, since its start, the RSPO certification has been questioned as a concrete means to stop forest degradation and the loss of biodiversity. In fact, RSPO certified companies should ensure that forests are assessed for their high conservation values (HCV) before starting a new cultivation and, after the recent strengthening through the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), that plantations do not damage areas high carbon stock (HCS).

Dr. Cazzolla Gatti and colleagues suggest that an often hidden and even more worrying aspect concerning “sustainable” palm oil is the fact that this may come from the recent loss of tropical forests and has impact on plant and animal biodiversity as well carbon emissions.

Dr Cazzolla Gatti states that it is fundamental to accurately quantify the economic and environmental costs and benefits of the current “sustainable” production of palm oil, based on the most recent data available as done in their analysis, and to evaluate alternative policies and tools to improve its effectiveness. 

So what is the answer to palm oil alternatives?

Dr Cazzolla Gatti answers “Palm oil substitutes that have less environmental impacts should be a research priority, but as long as the environmental costs of production are not internalized in its price, this oil will continue to dominate the market and cause catastrophic damage to tropical forests”. 

“We suggest economic incentives at national level to reduce the consumption of fatty and unhealthy food and to promote the use of non-tropical oils of national origin (such as rapeseed, olive, sunflower, flax, and other new deforestation free alternatives) in food and cosmetics (something that many European brands have already independently started to do to face the growing consumer concerns). These measures would discourage the totally unsustainable use of palm oil in the global market and would be much more effective than any certification scheme for environmental sustainability”

More information: Roberto Cazzolla Gatti et al. Sustainable palm oil may not be so sustainable, Science of The Total Environment (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.10.222 

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