EU Regulation on Imported Deforestation: Time to Consider Sustainable Production for Palm Oil

Oil palm plants are able to produce biomass that has the potential to replace fossil oil in a sustainable manner. Its main products, palm oil, is able to make a positive contribution to the economy of rural communities effectively in palm oil producing countries, especially Indonesia. However, as an Indonesian student studying in France, I see that the treatment of European society, especially France, towards palm oil and its derivatives, tends to be unfair.

I said unfair because The European Commission issued a draft regulation aiming to ban the sale on European soil of soy, beef, palm oil, wood, cocoa and coffee as well as some of their derived products, if they come from a deforested territory after December 31, 2020. The reason is very classic. These commodities may cause deforestation with a large CO2 emission footprint.  However, the oilseed crops and other agricultural crops in the EU are also planted on previously forested land, Deforestation whether in the past or the future has and will emit co2 to the atmosphere. Because of the cut-off date of 31 December 2020, the EU has cleverly shielded its agricultural commodities from being punished for being planted on previously deforested land. This no deforestation narrative really played a major role in changing the paradigm of European society. It is as if oil palm is the only crop that caused deforestation. In fact, oil palm is planted as an agricultural crop needed by developing countries to develop and most palm oil has begun to adopt a sustainable production process, as regulated through the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and mandatory sustainable certification schemes such as ISPO and MSPO.

I know that Indonesia is a strategic partner of France. Both countries shared similar ambitions in promoting the development and strengthening the ties through cooperation and solidarity actions built upon common commitments. Indonesia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Retno Marsudi met with France’s Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian in February 2022 and discussed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and the Convention on Biological Diversity. It was surely a critical political momentum between Indonesia, who is currently the G20 President, and France, the current leader of the European Commission. Surely, I expect smooth synergies between the two countries that prioritise multilateralism. However, when mentioning an ideal synergy of trade between France and Indonesia, does it mean that it is free from any setbacks? Even when it comes to imported goods coming into France, such as the often-misunderstood palm oil?

France put the banning draft on palm oil in its priority list for its Presidency of the Council of the European Union during the first semester of 2022. Simply put, this document materialized by the duty to provide documents certifying that their goods have not been produced on deforested land. What was the base of this draft text if not to appease the climate change policy? It is noticeable that the European Commission and France in their role of the Presidency of the EU Council have declared their ambition to reduce the environmental impacts of EU citizens’ choices. However, it is crucial to draw the attention to the following facts about palm oil: (1) It requires 6 to 10 times less land than all other oilseed crops which clearly requires more agricultural land and leads to high indirect land-use change, and (2) palm oil is the most heavily certified of all commodities imported into the EU, yet France interestingly hosts the most palm oil-free label products in all of the EU countries (latest finding is 7,886 products). If the EU wants to reduce CO2 emissions from deforestation, they should consider reforesting their extensively deforested land which is now planted with oilseed and other crops. Reforestation will help remove co2 from the atmosphere which can help mitigate climate change: same objective France tries to achieve by banning imported deforestation.

My country has shown commitments and concrete actions to sustainable production through the establishment of mandatory sustainability schemes for palm oil, the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO), aiming to fasten the transition towards a truly sustainable palm oil production and tangible sustainability commitment. The Indonesian moratorium that had put a stop to issuing new licenses for oil palm plantations and Malaysia’s commitment to cap palm oil cultivated areas are just two tiny examples of sustainable land use management by both countries. The significant decrease in wildfires and deforestation in Indonesia provides firm evidence of the commitment of palm oil producing countries toward sustainable vegetable oil production. It only seems that the appealing narrative for the European market is one thing; deforestation caused by agricultural expansion as if dismissing other positive facts of palm oil that are mentioned above. Such mindsets need to be revitalized. Cynics with their anti-palm oil stance need to open up their minds and be accepting of the fact that sustainable palm oil exists and it is here to stay.

It is obvious today that the fight against climate change cannot be fought or won alone. Banning is always the easiest way to try to tackle multi-angle issues. However, banning itself will never solve anything. It is hard to believe that Western countries will succeed in decarbonizing their consumption without the establishment of a real international collaboration around sustainable development. Moreover, this sustainable development is a major concern for the consumers that Governments can no longer ignore.

In the end, I believe that France is the most strategically placed in its capacity as President of the Council of the European Union to lead the discussions on imported deforestation towards a more balanced approach based on the reality of sustainable production and the impact on the local populations. It is the time that France reconsiders in changing its attitude toward palm oil. It is said that the draft regulation will be reviewed in the next 5 years. We may not have 5 years to wait when ISPO and well-recorded sustainability practices are already in place. Not when the livelihood of many small-scale farmers is at stake. Is this the smooth and balanced collaboration between ASEAN and the EU that we are actually hoping for?. If the EU were to ban commodities planted on previously deforested land, it is logical for the affected countries to ban agricultural products from the EU which are also grown previously on deforested land as the arbitrary cutoff date should be 2020 years ago not 2020. The effects of deforestation leading to loss of biodiversity and emission of co2 are the same whether deforestation happened in the past, present, or the future.

Author: Jakty Kusuma, PhD candidate, AgroParis Tech, French National Institute of Research and Development (IRD).