12. 12. 2011

RSPO Coming of Age

I’ve followed the story of the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil pretty much from its inception ten years ago. It was high risk for all those involved at that time (particularly WWF, Unilever and the Malaysian Palm Oil Association), and it’s still high risk today, ten years on.

Just by way of background, palm oil is an extremely versatile edible oil, produced mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia, used as a highly-valued raw material in many processed foods, hygiene and healthcare products, industrial feedstocks, and (albeit at a relatively low level still) liquid fuels.

It’s so much more productive, in terms of yield per hectare, than any other rival product that it’s a literal no-brainer that we should be doing everything in our power to ensure that every tonne of palm oil delivered into those different supply chains achieves the highest possible sustainability standards.

And that’s exactly what the RSPO is all about – as I discovered recently when I was invited out to Malaysia to give the keynote address to this year’s Round Table. For me, it was an astonishing experience. There were roughly 900 delegates present, including growers, smallholders, processors, retailers, trade associations, academics, consultants, politicians, lobbyists and NGOs covering every aspect of the palm oil supply chain from human rights and local economic empowerment, governance and traceability, biodiversity and ecosystem services, through to greenhouse gases and renewable energy.

The level of expertise focussed exclusively and intensely on the dynamics of sustainable palm oil was mindboggling. If intellectual firepower was all that was needed, genuinely sustainable palm oil would have been a done deal years ago. I know of no other single feedstock or commodity initiative that has created such a comprehensive process to improve standards, create markets and generate increased economic value whilst demonstrating “best practice” on both social and environmental issues.

I’m not sure the full value of this is properly recognised by people outside the charmed inner circle of the RSPO itself. A lot of NGOs that are not involved (as well as some of those that are!) remain pretty sniffy about the RSPO, with all the usual canards about unacceptable compromise and cop-out.

To be fair, there are indeed many serious problems that remain regarding the implementation of the RSPO’s principals, when it comes to human rights and a host of land use and biodiversity issues. (Think orang-utan here – the poster-species for campaigners seeking to bring an end to continuing deforestation.) And there are also problems on the other side: lots of retailers and food processors in the UK and elsewhere have made bold commitments to using Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO), but have then delayed and prevaricated in the most disgraceful way even as sufficient quantities of CSPO became available.

But all these problems are being now addressed, either informally or through a formal grievance procedure.

More problematic, in my opinion, is the prevailing view amongst some (but not all) of the big palm oil companies that the continuing focus on palm oil, given all today’s pressing agriculture, commodity and forestry issues, is disproportionate and downright unfair. At their most paranoid, some representatives of the industry will even surface the suggestion that those NGOs which are most hostile to continuing growth in palm oil production are somehow in the pay of their big competitors – soy, sunflower and rapeseed or whatever. Fantastical, of course, but it plays well with certain audiences.

I described this in my Lecture as “Palm Oil Exceptionalism” – the perception that palm oil has been “singled out” by sustainability zealots for special attention.

As it happens, there’s some truth in this. The journey the RSPO has taken on over ten years is indeed unique. Whilst both fisheries and forest have benefitted greatly from their respective Stewardship Councils, no other globally-traded commodity feedstock has been subjected to the same scrutiny or required to meet such high standards for its basic products to qualify as “certified sustainable”.

That’s changing now – with the Round Table on Responsible Soy, the Better Cotton Initiative and Bon Sucro (for sugar cane) but palm oil has been out ahead for a long time, and the resulting change in the industry has been extraordinary.

Which is why I went on to suggest that now is the time to celebrate this exceptional status, rather than moaning about it. The RSPO has given the industry some very powerful first-mover advantages: shared definitions and methodologies around different sustainability issues; tried and tested stakeholder engagement processes, including impressive Social Impact Assessments; a robust financial model (each tonne of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil generates a small levy to help fund research and market development); an understanding of the nexus between land use, energy and climate change; a science-driven research programme to improve yields; a deep understanding of their markets (and consumer sensitivities) in the West as well as in China and India; and a set of resilient risk management systems to help the industry cope with some of the dramatic changes coming down the track.

Every single commodity and agricultural crop in the world will have to go through exactly the same kind re-positioning process as palm oil has done over the last ten years. As the “perfect storm” of converging sustainability pressures – high and volatile energy prices, water shortages, accelerating climate change, commodity price hikes, degradation of productive farm land, loss of biodiversity, human rights and so on – bears down upon them, many companies in those other areas will be completely unable to cope.

The RSPO therefore deserves a lot of credit for pioneering these more sustainable management practices. There may still be those who can’t see the benefits of what they’ve been through so far, but it won’t be long before people recognise that the RSPO is as much about competitiveness, resilience, and fit-for-purpose business models as it is about sustainability as such.

And what a turning point that will be.

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18. 03. 2012
robert piller

hi jonathon,

perhaps you could contact my own campaign and i could give you some real ideas on truly sustainable palm oil.

please contact us and we'll put your details on our mailing list.

06. 03. 2012
Jacob Jonker

Oops,sorry,it's Jonathon,of course.

06. 03. 2012
Jacob Jonker

People need a quantum kick up the behind,but one ought not force people to change their behaviour against their will.I doubt that Jonathan can make any difference here.It looks like trying to lower the water level in a swimming pool by pushing down on the water with a bucket.Generally speaking,I think,Jonathan,like many others,is stuck in an old-fashioned psycho-social and socio-economic straitjacket.This is how things were always done.This is how the corporations are able to carry on regardless,but when push comes to shove,these connections may be useful to some degree.But all this,let's say,round table talk between corporate/commercial/vested interests and environmentalists/Greens has so far looked to be public relations.It allows the commercial interests to carry on while being able with justification to point to all the talks that have been going on,agreements made,and plans made and executed to 'reduce' their environmental impact.There are no doubt some successes booked by the likes of Jonathan.The commercial operators want to keep this for them profitable dialogue going until the cows come home,if not forever.They want to encourage the coopted environmentalists by giving them a little success from time to time.If Jonathan believes in this kind of dialogue,he must keep it up,evidently,but it looks like a perfect waste of time.However,as a public relations exercise and political strategy it pays the corporate commercial interests at no real cost to them,while the environment is not any the better for it.Now,on a different slant,even if all of the West were to go live a subsistence life,the show would go on elsewhere.If the West were to stop importing natural resources from the rest of the world,the rest of the world would get more of it,and cheaper at that.If the West were to stop exporting science and technology to the rest of the world,the rest of the world would not be stopped from developing as the West has,with all the consumption and waste that goes with the world economy as it is structured now.If the West were to stop importing from and exporting to the rest of the world altogether,the rest of the world would adjust and experience a rapid rise in living standards.The environment in the rest of the world would be the worse for it,while the environment in the West could,with prudent management,become like a garden of Eden.I think the only answer is for every nation-state to sort themselves out by democratic means and give the example of how it can be done without material poverty,with a decent standard of living.If other nation-states are irresponsible,that is their right.Those who are responsible just have to bear the consequences of the irresponsible behaviour of others,if they can not be avoided.The key is to make people suffer for their own irresponsibility.At the moment,the price of irresponsible behaviour is too often paid by people who had nothing to do with it.This is much encouraged by the politics of those in control in the West,who are supported time and again by the electorates voting for tweedledum or dee(EU,banking crisis,Euro crisis,etc.).As yet,the West has enormous influence in the world.It is not used well at all.The way things are structured in the West now does not appear to be giving one any hope of us avoiding the natural and just consequence of our collective wrong action and lack of right action.

12. 02. 2012
Shaun Chamberlin

Hi Jonathon, I value your opinion, so I'd be interested in your take on this article which is highly critical of such 'round tables', including the RSPO:

I also note this 2008 declaration against the RSPO from over 250 organisations:

It's not really my area of expertise, but your assurance that "all these problems are being now addressed, either informally or through a formal grievance procedure" doesn't seem to counter-balance the list of problems those documents present.

From what I've seen thus far it seems that the RSPO is about making the palm oil industry "less bad" and not even close to contributing to any kind of real sustainability in the light of that "perfect storm" of converging crises. As you hint, it seems more about economic competitiveness.

But you appears that you believe differently, so I'd be interested to hear why. This article seems more written to reassure industry than environmentally concerned young people, so perhaps you could write something on it for us?

14. 12. 2011
KLaus Schenck - Save the Rainforests

All these industry labels mentioned before - including RSPO - are pure greenwash. Not a single tree, fish, Orang Utan, nor the local villagers have been saved by all these labels. It sounds very nice to have so many people discussing environmental problems and human rights issues in round tables. But in the rain forests, the oceans, the palm oil, soy, cotton, agrofuel and other industrial monoculture plantations nothing changed. Also the consumers and general public are betrayed, while the clear cuts, land grabbings and destruction of our natural resources go on.
Tens years of meetings - It is a complete waste of time! In the meantime the oil palm plantations rapidly expanded in SE Asia, on the cost of the natural and peat forests, and the land rights of the local peasant farmers and indigenous peoples. And now the some companies already arrived in West and Central Africa.
More information here: http://www​.wrm.org.u​y/publicat​ions/brief​ings/RSPO.​pdf
International declaration against RSPO signed by 256 NGOs: http://www​.wrm.org.u​y/subjects​/agrofuels​/Internati​onal_Decla​ration_RTS​PO.pdf

13. 12. 2011
Sarah Clayton

This is all very well and good, as far as it goes. I can believe there are many good and clever people doing all they can to ensure that the millions and millions of tonnes/gallons of palm oil that the world uses as food are produced so called "sustainably" avoiding the worse of biodiversity and habitat loss. But this article conveniently glosses over the massive and looming problem of more palm oil being used as FUEL. Not as food. And the volumes being contemplated are vast. I am not convinced that the quantities of palm oil that would be grown to produce either fuel for power stations, or for transport, could even approach being environmentally "sustainable".

Jonathan needs to deal with this problem, and not just skirt round it.

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