Palm Oil Producing Countries are Leading the World on Agricultural Sustainability

The sustainability of palm oil is often questioned – more often than for any other crop. Palm oil is accused of being a leading cause of deforestation — and therefore a driver of wildlife loss and climate change. It is also accused of causing any number of social ills. The focus on palm oil is hugely disproportionate: no other crop receives as much scrutiny from NGOs, politicians or the media. The same level of scrutiny is not applied to other commodities such as beef, soy, rapeseed, sunflower or corn.

Before we look at the question of the sustainability of oil palm cultivation, the footprint of the crop needs to be put into perspective.

Crop Global Area (Mha)
Pasture / fodder crops 3,500
Wheat 220
Maize 190
Rice 167
Soybean 126
Other oilseeds 90 99
Cotton 33.5
Cane sugar 25
Oil palm 18.7

Source: FAO-OECD Agricultural Outlook 2019

Across the globe, around 4,900 Mha of land is used for agriculture. Oil palm represents around 0.3% of the total agricultural area of the world. Compared to other crops that may have more recent history, oil palm plantation was first established 100 years ago, yet it remains a very small contributor to the global use of land for agricultural purposes.

The largest concern of palm oil critics is that oil palm cultivation has contributed significantly to global deforestation in recent times. Again, to gain perspective, a comparison with other agricultural commodities is needed.

Commodity Annual deforestation (Ha) Share of deforestation (%) (1990-2008)
Beef/livestock 2,710,000 24
Soy 480,000 5.5
Maize
Timber 380,000
Palm 270,000 2.3
Rice 1.8

Source: UCSA, European Commission

Compared with other commodities, the deforestation footprint of oil palm is small: Ten times smaller than beef, and around half that of soy.

There is, therefore, a hugely disproportionate focus on palm oil – both in its existing footprint and its rate of change. The debate on deforestation does not match up with the reality on the ground – if it did, then far more time would be spent discussing other commodities instead of continued focus only on palm oil.

There is also a lack of credit given to oil palm cultivation in terms of its existing sustainability assurances. Currently, RSPO is the major international scheme for palm oil. It covers around 4 million ha of cultivated area (21%) and around 19% of global production. RSPO certification does not cover certification under Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) and Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO). The certification footprint of palm oil can be compared with other certification schemes below.

Commodity/SchemeGlobal certified area (ha)Share of global area (%)Certified production (Mt)Share of global production (%)
Palm (RSPO)3,950,00021% 14,500,000 19%
Palm (ISPO)4,110,000 22% NA NA
Palm (MSPO)3,260,000 17% NA NA
Soybean (RTRS)Not published <1% (est) 4,070,000 1.1%
Beef (GRSB) 0000

Source: RSPO, RTRS, GRSB, MSPO, ISPO

This is not the full story, however. There are further commitments that have been made by the Indonesian and Malaysian governments in terms of both environmental management and certification.

Indonesia’s forest moratorium was first introduced in 2011 under President Yudhoyono. The moratorium was extended three times, and finally made permanent in 2019. The original moratorium banned clearing of forest for oil palm and plantation forestry in primary forest and peatland areas. This covered an area of approximately 66 million ha – slightly under two-thirds of Indonesia’s total forest area.

There is enough evidence to indicate that the moratorium has made an impact. Since 2014, the rate of forest cover loss has slowed. The drop has been large enough for it to trigger an avoided deforestation payment from Norway to the Government of Indonesia, from a deal that was signed in 2010 between the two countries. There have been some exceptions to this, notably in 2016. The high levels of tree cover loss in this year was because of fires that occurred in the previous calendar year, and were recorded in the statistics in 2016.

In March of this year, Malaysia’s Minister for Primary Industries Teresa Kok announced that the Federal Government would push to cap the total oil palm area for Malaysia at 6 million ha from the current total of 5.85 million ha. Although the proposal requires the support of state administrations across Malaysia, it is a clear indication that the government is seeking to place further curbs on any forest loss.

These are further proactive measures taken by producing countries to curb any impact on deforestation and climate. But, again, context is essential. Forest loss is not actually a major concern in Malaysia compared with other countries, such as Brazil or Congo Basin countries.
Malaysia’s forest area has largely been flat for several years, according to UN FAO data. Its tree cover loss – which can be the result of selective logging in natural forests, disease, or replanting within plantations – has been relatively small. The country’s total forest area is around 22,200,000ha. Estimates put tree cover loss in natural forest areas at around 233,000ha for 2018.

As stated earlier, this could be the result of any number of factors – not necessarily deforestation per se or conversion to non-forest areas. Conversion of rubberwood plantations to oil palm plantations may also be a contributing factor to those data.

Finally, the RSPO has laid down a commitment for zero deforestation. This was established nearly a year ago at the RSPO Roundtable and General Assembly. In short, it is now against RSPO rules for any forest conversion to take place – primary, secondary and more – for conversion to palm oil. RSPO members will not be expanding their plantation areas any time soon.

To summarise: The world’s two largest palm oil producers are placing a cap on cultivation area, and simultaneously prohibiting expansion on primary forest and peatland. Added to this, the commodity’s major voluntary sustainability scheme – which covers an area larger than any other scheme for other products (e.g. rapeseed or sunflower, neither of which has an equivalent sustainability scheme) – has prohibited deforestation.

No other commodity grouping has sustainability commitments that come close to these. The closest is soy. It is likely that around 1 million ha of soybean production is certified under RTRS (the organisation does not publish its figures). This is around one quarter of RSPO’s area, and even less than that covered by MSPO and ISPO.

Soybean is absent a global body that is both interested in sustainability and has national-level certification schemes to match. CPOPC is potentially a new forum for palm oil that can harmonise national-level commitments under a single umbrella, and push new sustainability commitments aligned with Sustainable Development Goals – not just Western-aligned notions of sustainability.

Rapeseed certification for sustainability is generally carried out through the ISCC system. Yet ISCC is not specifically designed for rapeseed – it covers palm oil too. Similarly, sunflower lacks a dedicated certification system. One of the few standards that has attempted to capture this niche is the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomass. It does not publish its certification area data.

For the most part, neither rapeseed nor sunflower – two of palm’s major competitors in food applications – are able to independently verify their sustainability or transparency. Russia is the largest producer of sunflower oil. Can anyone verify that Russian firms are complying with anti-bribery laws or are compliant with ILO rules?

In this regard, palm oil is years ahead on sustainability. We are waiting for other agricultural commodities to catch up. It would be nice, occasionally, to get the credit that is deserved for this international leadership.