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Kuala Lumpur: A recent Christmas advertisement in the UK highlighting the plight of orangutan reignited the campaign against palm oil. Produced by Greenpeace, and featuring Hollywood heavyweight Emma Thompson as the narrator, the Iceland Supermarket aired the plight of the orangutan losing their habitat to oil palm plantations. Under normal circumstances, the campaign would run its normal course during the Christmas season. However, the attention multiplied by tenfold when the advertisement was banned by the UK approving authority for television advertisements, for being “too political”. The advertisement instead went viral and rapidly spread in social media.
The uproar that ensued calling for the ban of palm oil was heard far and wide. However, here’s the thing – boycotting palm oil is neither an answer nor a solution. In fact, it can only make things worse.
It is not palm oil that harms the orangutan, nor other agricultural crop that damages the environment. It is unsustainable agricultural production that impacts the environment, affecting natural ecosystems, reducing wildlife habitats, emitting greenhouse gases and polluting freshwater. For palm oil, the huge demand for its products and massive expansion in the tropics make it a major driver of deforestation and a huge threat to wildlife, such as orangutans, elephants and tigers. Large swathes of land that were once forest, rich with biodiversity and gigantic trees, are today covered with palm oil plantations. Converting forests and burning trees to plant the crop in our neighbouring country have resulted in regular haze engulfing parts of our region. Urgent action is therefore needed to protect these iconic species, and the habitats in which they live.
When cultivated properly and planted in the right places, production of palm oil would not negatively impact the environment. To this end, WWF is working with various stakeholders and government agencies to develop standards and planting procedures that ensure sustainability of the palm oil production. To date, over 1.1 million hectares of palm oil plantations have been certified according to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), while Malaysia and Indonesia are making it mandatory to have all palm oil plantations, including smallholders to be certified according to national standards over the coming decade.
Banning palm oil and substituting it with other plant-based crops would have unintended consequence. In September 2016, WWF conducted a study and published a report looking at the environmental consequences of palm oil substitution in Germany. One of the main conclusions was that exchanging palm oil with other oils can worsen the problems. Palm oil is the highest yielding vegetable oil compared to soybean, rapeseed and sunflower, requiring less land to produce the same volume. Banning it and substituting palm oil with other crops would require more land, resulting in larger expanses of forest conversion to plant these crops. The end result would be the same, causing greater impact to habitats, biodiversity and the environment. As such, for WWF, wherever we are, we work with the palm oil sector, as well as other vegetable oil sectors, to move them towards sustainability, both in terms of production and their supply chain, as well as consumption.
In Malaysia, we welcome the October 2018 announcement by the Minister of Primary Industries on halting oil palm plantation expansions to ensure Malaysia’s forest cover remain above 50%. This underlines Malaysia’s commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that calls for a halt to deforestation by 2020. On their part, the palm oil industry players should take responsibility in ensuring the sustainability of their production and cutting off their supply of fresh fruit bunch (FFB) and crude palm oil (CPO) from deforested areas.
WWF believes companies can be drivers of change and are better placed to help develop solutions for sustainably sourced palm oil from within the value chain, rather than forfeiting leverage and allowing demand to simply shift to other products and markets. We applaud companies who are taking extra steps to work with others in the palm oil value chain to create and support models for sustainable production and best practices, particularly models that are inclusive of smallholders.
Certification, complemented by other approaches and strong governance, plays an important role in ending irresponsible palm oil production. Joining the RSPO and committing to responsible palm oil supply chains is an important first step that all stakeholders who are concerned with ensuring sustainable production can take. With the 2018 revision of the RSPO Principles and Criteria, the RSPO Standard now represents an essential tool that can help companies achieve their commitments to palm oil that is free of deforestation, expansion on peat, exploitation and the use of fire.
As evidenced by the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), WWF and others, there are a number of innovative actions that companies and other actors in the palm oil value chain can take to create, promote and support innovative models of sustainable consumption and production. These actions should allow for multiple outcomes of protection, production and restoration, and can include supporting better land use planning practices, investing in smallholder support programmes, and exploring sustainable landscape approaches that are inclusive of multiple land-uses and involve all relevant stakeholders, including communities and smallholders.
Boycotts of palm oil will neither protect nor restore the rainforest, whereas companies undertaking actions for a more sustainable palm oil industry are contributing to a long-lasting and transparent solution.
Dr Henry Chan
Conservation Director, WWF-Malaysia
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For more information, please contact:
Communications Manager, Sustainable Markets Programme, WWF-Malaysia
Tel: +603-7450 3773