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Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Food vs Fuel: How Sustainable is Palm Oil?

The Sustainability of Palm Oil Production debate held by The Parliament Magazine in association with the Malaysian Palm Oil Council at the European Parliament on 14 June attracted a full house of MEPs, NGOs, policymakers, researchers, journalists and industry representatives to the Parliament Members’ Salon, where participating speakers set out widely divergent views on the issues surrounding palm oil.

In support of palm oil and the impact it has had on raising the rural Malaysian population out of poverty, Dr Nagendran Bala Sundram from the Malaysian Embassy to the EU stressed the importance of palm oil production to the Malaysian economy and global food security, while underlining Malaysia's sustainable management of its palm oil industry.  Malaysia intends to increase its yield from the palm oil crop so that more can be produced from the same land, seeing off in part the indirect land use change (iLUC) critics.

Danish Conservative MEP Anna Rosbach touched on the tough question of how to reconcile deforestation and its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions with the benefits palm oil provides in terms of foods and cosmetics.  “We need to avoid blaming Asian developing countries for environmental damage,” she stressed, before noting that while Malaysia seems to be coping well enough, international corporations are purchasing vast tracts of land in Africa where regulatory systems are lax to say the least.

Dr. Chris Malins of the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) introduced yet another hot button topic related to the sustainability of palm oil and food crops in general.  Dr. Malins noted the runaway production of palm oil in recent years, calling it “a problem that isn’t under control” and shared his research on projected upward trends in carbon emissions from deforestation and peatland conversion to palm oil production.  To offset this, Dr. Malins encouraged the development of methane capture methods at palm oil plantations.

Clearly industry plays a role in implementing sustainable solutions.  Agathe Grossmith, Sustainability Manager of the Carrefour Group, underlining the essential role of palm oil across food supply chains in many diverse sectors, noted that palm oil is part of the staple diet of some 3 billion people, and said that integration of principles of corporate social responsibility has seen her organisation embrace the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)’s certification on sustainable palm oil, and the internationally-recognised quality-control standards it provides.

This is all well and good in theory, argued Imke Lübbeck from WWF’s European Policy Office, who claimed that NGOs’ concerns about palm oil production in developing countries are by no means exaggerated and emphasised the  “need to work out these issues in practice in order to get real,”  before stating that over half of Malaysia’s palm oil production occurs on previously deforested land and that the rate of peatland and forests lost to the timber and palm oil industries is in fact increasing, resulting in an alarming loss of species and further rises in carbon emission levels.  Nevertheless, Ms. Lübbeck agreed that the Roundtable’s certified palm oil is the way forward and said that NGOs would like to see “more action at the level of consumer markets in the EU to reduce our palm oil consumption to sustainable levels.”

So what next for the sustainability of palm oil production?  Should we provide incentives to convert land use for biofuel production and reduce carbon emissions?  Or enforce rigorous regulatory standards at the risk of driving up costs and plunging Malaysian smallholders back into poverty?  And what about palm oil used in cosmetics and household products?  The debate will no doubt continue within the overall context of food vs fuel and the imperative of reducing carbon emissions fast.  As chairman Callanan noted in his concluding remarks, for Europe to single out developing countries like Malaysia for missing sustainability and carbon emissions targets is hypocritical given our own biodiversity record.  The time for action on our part is now.

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