How sustainable is certified sustainable palm oil?

Author: Natalie Long (@globalsamaritan)

A new study published in Science of the total environment has explored the validity of certified sustainable palm oil and the results are alarming.

The research paper studied a 30-year time series in Sumatra and Borneo analysing satellite images to track palm oil expansion of certified sustainable plantations. The findings suggest that sustainable certification is misleading as it does not take into account the recent-time of the land. If tighter, stronger guidelines for sustainable palm oil are not introduced we could see the collapse of the world’s tropical rainforests ecosystems.

The 30-year time series highlights that significant portions of endangered species habitat and almost intact tropical forests had been depleted in very recent times to make space for palm oil plantations which soon after became certified as sustainable. Overall, the study found that certified sustainable plantations in Indonesia replaced 92.3% of 1984 tropical forests. These were mostly logged during just the last 30 years. Of these, 51 RSPO certified supply bases in Indonesia were still fully covered by forest up to 1990 and 5 of them were a rainforest up to 2000. In the Malayan Borneo,it is estimated that about 470 k ha included in 173 RSPO-certified concessions, only  about 3,3 k ha of fragmented rainforests remain in 2020. This illustrates the poor and interpretation of sustainable within the certified sustainable palm oil sector. “Every area that was a forest just “yesterday”, and is logged “today”, can become a sustainable plantation “tomorrow or the day after”.The study clearly demonstrates that the current claims of sustainable palm oil are completely inaccurate.  

If these trends continue, endangered species such as the orangutans, sumatran tiger, sumatran rhino, sumatran elephant and other species that reside in the forest will continue to lose their home and face the possibility of extinction.

This is not the first time sustainable palm oil has come under fire for its lack of stringent and effective guidelines and procedures. In September 2018, Greenpeace International’s Final Countdown report exposed significant recent deforestation or other violations by 14 RSPO members or associated parties. Greenpeace stated “Violations of the RSPO’s standard and procedures remain systemic and widespread” (Greenpeace). If this continues, tropical rainforest will deplete to an irreversible point – this is not sustainable. 

Currently, sustainable palm oil certification results in the continued degradation of tropical rainforests and an alarming loss of wildlife. As the human population continues to grow, so will demand for vegetable oils. Alternatives to palm oil must be sourced alongside more strict and effective sustainable palm oil certification.

We are privileged enough to live in a moment in history where we can still turn this around. Every action we take from here forward counts. What step will you take to restore the world’s trees?

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