What are the French and NGOs doing to slow Sustainable Palm Oil?

French retailers like Casino supermarket have been slapping “no palm oil” labels on bags of crisps and a proliferating list of other goods for some time. Egged on by NGOs, many French retailers have been taking palm oil out of products because of concerns about how the world’s most prolific vegetable oil is produced and the link to deforestation. The trendy move by the retailers has also spilled over into Belgium as well, annoying palm producers in spades.

But do those French retailers have a clue what their actually doing, begged Yusof Basiron, the chief of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, at the Malaysian government’s annual palm oil trade fair in Kuala Lumpur on Monday. The retailers’ move is causing certified palm oil produced under the environmentally friendly rubric of the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil to not be used, he said. Reading between the lines, this is akin to throwing out the “good” palm oil with the “bad” palm oil (or, palm oil produced from land that was previously rain forest).

The implication is that if demand for RSPO-palm oil is tepid, producers won’t make the necessary investments to produce more of the environmentally friendlier stuff.

“(French retailers and NGOs) are destroying value and creating a lose-lose situation,” Mr. Basiron said.

(This is an area the European Commission is scheduled to wade into generally on Wednesday when it is expected to formally propose its nearly two-year delayed proposal on indirect land use change, or ILUC, in biofuels. After years of intensive lobbying by environmentalists and industry, the Commission is expected to propose to limit food-based biofuels to 5% of the EU’s 10% renewable fuel in transport target. That’s a momentary victory for the environmentalists, but similarly takes a peg out of initiatives like RSPO. Let’s see what the European Parliament and European Council say on this in the next one to two years.)

One can understand Mr. Basiron’s anguish. The point of the RSPO when it was formally set up eight years ago was essentially to bring together industry and NGOs to agree on and develop best practices to achieve more sustainably produced palm oil. That is happening, but slowly, in part because consumers don’t have much of an appetite for it, with just around 11% of the world’s total palm oil production certified as RSPO palm oil.

The French and NGOs weren’t represented at the first day of the trade fair to respond. And it’s unclear how much RSPO palm oil might be going unused because of the French marketing ploy, which is not required by French regulations.

Still, the basic point is that palm oil — even the more environmentally sound stuff produced under the RSPO auspices — remains weighed down by a heavy stigma in Europe and the US, and with NGO pressure being a primary factor for this.

The world’s main palm oil producers — Malaysia and Indonesia, accounting for around 85% of world production — and NGOs have long had a fraught relationship. Both countries complain about hypocrisy and Mr. Basiron didn’t miss the opportunity to sound out that charge again today. A rich country like France, he said, has deforested over 70% of its land in the name of development, while Malaysia, a developing country that has chopped down forests increasingly to plant palm oil in the name of development and poverty reduction, still retains just under 60% of its total land as rain forest.

Other participants at the palm oil trade fair were also keen to put things into perspective. Out of roughly 300 million hectares of rain forest that many NGOs believe have been plowed under in the past 20 years globally, less than 3% of that has been caused by palm oil plantings, Carl Bek-Nielsen of Denmark’s United Plantations, told the trade fair.

But the most important points at the Malaysian palm oil trade fair were more about the things that are happening in Malaysia to reduce new land-use requirements for palm oil production; this includes state-set goals for boosting palm oil productivity by optimizing growing procedures, like fertilizer inputs, and maximizing resource efficiency. (The Malaysian government has also set a limit to maintain no less than 50% of its rain forest – a lot higher than where France sits today with its forested land; there is still around 57% of rainforest standing in Malaysia, according to government and industry estimates.)

There were also, importantly, points made about the need for increased discussion between palm oil producers and NGOs and finding areas of common agreement; this is especially relevant in the area of helping elevate the skills and processes of poor smallholders, which make up about 40%-45% of all plantation owners in Malaysia and Indonesia. Without trying to move the discussion in this sort of direction, the emotion-driven debate that is palm oil will continue with little benefit to informing the wider public debate.

“We need to be showing that conservation can go hand in hand with development … and joining forces with people who are amenable to facilitate change,” said Bek-Nielsen.

Spencer Swartz