As the Global Demand for Palm Oil Rises, There is More Focus on the Growing Areas – and on Industry Behaviors Such as Deforestation

By Hank Boerner – Chair, G&A Institute

Palm Oil is one of the world’s most popular vegetable cooking oils and in western nations is widely used as prepared food ingredients. Food industry interests promote the benefits: lower cholesterol levels, less heart disease, more Vitamins A and E, and much more, derived from the rich beta-carotene from the pulp of oil palms.

Palm oil also shows up in our detergents, shampoo, cosmetics, pizza slices, cookies, margarine — and even in biofuels. Palm oil is especially used for cooking in Africa, Asia and parts of South America and is growing in favor in other regions such as in North America.

The palm oil plantations are located in such regions of the world as Southeast Asia – and there the industry is linked to the downside of the beneficial consumer product: deforestation, degrading of flora and fauna habitat, abuses of indigenous peoples, and negative impact on climate change as old growth land and tropical forest is cleared to make way for oil palm plantations.

Stakeholder reaction resulted in the creation of “reliable No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation” policies – the “NDPE”.

These were developed for certification (to buyers) by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and adopted in 2013 and 2014 by numerous Southeast Asian palm oil traders and refiners.

The policies (spelled out as best practices) are designed to prevent clearing of forests and peat lands for new palm oil plantations. There are 29 company groups, reports Chain Reaction Research, that have refining capabilities and have adopted NDPE policies. (Climate Reaction Research is a joint effort between Climate Advisers, Profundo and Aidenvironment.)

“Un-sustainable” palm oil practices are an issue for investors, customers (buying the oil), companies with sustainable practices, and countries in which palm oil is grown and harvested.

According to a new financial risk report from Chain Reaction Research, major markets with customers that accept “unsustainable palm oil” include India, China, Pakistan and Indonesia.

One of the major centers of production is the huge – more than 3,000-miles wide — Pacific Basin archipelago nation of Indonesia (once known as the Dutch East Indies). Almost half of the world’s palm oil refineries are in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The Indonesian government (the Ministry of Agriculture) reacted to the NDPE policies and proposed changes to its own certification program – known as the “Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil Standard” (ISPO) – that would appear to be presenting companies with pressure to adopt one or the other of the certifications.  (The ISPO policy focus is on reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions and addressing environmental issues.)

For Indonesia, palm oil is a strategic product that helps the government to meet job creation and export market goals. “Small holders” account for more than 40% of production in the country.

“Evidence suggests that the need for edible oil and energy will continue as populations grow, “Darmin Nasution, Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs for Indonesia points out. “Land that can be utilized will decrease, so the question is how to meet those needs in the limited land area. Increasing productivity will be the key.”

Companies using the existing Indonesian ISPO certification were accused of human rights abuses and “land grabs” and so in January the government developed the new certification, which opponents claim weakens protection (the draft changes for the regulation removes independent monitoring and replaces “protection” with “management” for natural ecosystems).

Stranded Asset Risks

CDP estimates that global companies in the industry had almost US$1 trillion in annual revenues at risk from deforestation-related commodities. As the developed nation buyers looked carefully at their global supply chains and sources, “stranded assets” developed; that is, land on which palm oil cannot be developed because of buyers’ NPDE procurement policies. Indonesia and Malaysia have some of the world’s largest suppliers.

Western Corporate Reaction

Early in 2018 PepsiCo announced that it and its J/V partner Indofood suspended purchasing of palm oil from IndoAgri because PepsiCo — a very prominent global brand marketer — is concerned about allegations about deforestation and human rights were not being met.

Institutional Investors are busily identifying companies that source Crude Palm Oil (“CPO”) without paying attention to sustainability requirements, putting pressure on both sellers and buyers and perhaps pushing the smaller players to the sidelines. European buyers import CPO in large quantities to be used in biofuels.

The bold corporate names in western societies show up in rosters of company groups with refining capacity and NDPE policies, including Bunge, Cargill, Louis Dreyfus Company, Unilever, and Wilmar International. These are large peer companies in the producing countries (like IOI Group, Daabon, Golden Agri-Resources) are aiming for “zero deforestation” in their NDPE policies.

Other companies that source palm oil include Kellogg’s, Procter & Gamble, Mars, General Mills, Mondelez International, and other prominent brand name markets.

Your can check out the Chain Reaction Research group paper – “Unsustainable Palm Oil Faces Increasing Market Access Risks – NDPE Sourcing Policies Cover 74% of Southeast Asia’s Refining Capacity” at: http://chainreactionresearch.com/2017/11/01/report-unsustainable-palm-oil-faces-increasing-market-access-risks-ndpe-sourcing-policies

What About Exercise of National Sovereignty?

This situation raises interesting questions for developed nation brand marketers. If the government of Indonesia presses forward with the country’s own standards, should the purchaser in a developed country ignore or embrace the country standard? Instead of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) standard? What about “sovereign rights,” as in the ability for a sovereign nation to establish its own policies and standards governing the products developed within its borders?

As industry groups create their own standards and invite industry participants to embrace these (such as for product certification), corporations may find themselves bumping up against “nationalistic” guidelines designed to benefit the internal constituencies rather than “global norms” imposed from outside the country’s borders.

# # #

Responding to the streams of negative news coming out of Indonesia, Chain Reaction Research on April 26 reported that Citigroup has cancelled loans to Indofood Agri Resources and its subsidiaries. Citigroup will exit its overall relationship with Indofood other than specific financial relationships that are not related to the palm oil business, says the research organization.

The research firm said that labor and environmental violations by Indofood and other companies related to Anthoni Salim and his family have been documented. The web of companies: Salim and family own 44% of First Pacific, which owns 74% of Indofood.

In April a report commissioned by Rainforest Action Network Foundation Norway and SumofUS and prepared by Chain Reaction Research alleged deforestation of almost 10,000 hectares of peatland by PT Duta Rendra – which is majority owned, the report says, by Salim and PT Sawit Khatulistiwa Lestan, which is associated by Salim.

Notes:

As we prepared this commentary, the Danish Institute for Human Rights and The Forest Trust carried out a Labour Rights Assessment of Nestle’s and Golden Agri-Resources palm oil supply chain in Indonesia.  Nestle’s and GAR and going to share their own action plans in response to the findings and recommendations.

For The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil information: https://www.rspo.org/

There is information from a recent conference in Jakarta for you at: https://www.scidev.net/asia-pacific/forestry/news/science-can-keep-palm-oil-industry-sustainable.html

The Indonesian Government ISPO information is at: http://www.ispo-org.or.id/index.php?lang=en

General Mills Statement on Responsible Palm Oil Sourcing is at: https://www.generalmills.com/en/News/Issues/palm-oil-statement

Rainforest Action Network information is at: https://www.ran.org/palm_oil?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIuJyBg97i2gIVE1mGCh3A-QMYEAAYASAAEgKZePD_BwE#

The Union of Concerned Scientists information is at: https://www.ucsusa.org/global-warming/stop-deforestation/drivers-of-deforestation-2016-palm-oil#.WudvOKjwbAw

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