Eye-Popping Understanding Of Palm Oil

A Cargill-run palm plantation in Borneo in 2009. Image: ​David Gilbert/RAN

A Cargill-run palm plantation in Borneo in 2009. Image: ​David Gilbert/RAN

Every now and then we of non-technical education read an article written by and for a technical audience, and kind of get it, and feel the stretch is worth the effort. Raxa Collective works in locations where palm oil is grown, and recently has scouted locations in Borneo that make this article both eye-opening and eye-popping:


The Race for Sustainable Palm Oil


Palm oil is a wonderfully versatile and cheap raw material. On its own or via chemical derivatives, the oil makes its way into many packaged foods and into household products ranging from fine cosmetics to heavy-duty detergents.

Some 63 million metric tons of palm oil is harvested annually from tropical plantations, 87 percent of it coming from Malaysia and Indonesia. Palm oil is derived from the flesh and kernel of the fruit of oil palms. Demand for the oil is set to exceed 70 million metric tons by the middle of the next decade.

But palm oil’s large-scale use has environmental costs. In Southeast Asia, it is the leading driver of deforestation. Indonesia has the third-largest area of contiguous tropical forest in the world, but according to a 2007 United Nations Environme​nt Programme report, 98 percent of the country’s natural rainforest will be destroyed by 2022 unless strict conservation measures are implemented.

Chemical companies are part of the problem because they are using ever-larger quantities of palm oil to make the “green” products demanded by consumers. But chemical firms such as Clariant, Cro​da, and Evo​nik Industries say they can be part of the solution by putting systems in place to ensure that they don’t source palm oil grown on land that has been recently deforested.

Critics argue that even more stringent measures are needed if rainforests are to survive. Meanwhile, other chemical and biotech firms are taking a completely different approach by looking to develop industrial biotechnology processes for next-generation oils that might someday replace palm.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO, was set up 11 years ago by palm oil producers and users to address the sector’s environmental impact. RSPO, which has 855 members, has devised two certification systems for ensuring that its members can source palm oil sustainably. Both approaches classify sustainable plantations as those not grown on land cleared of tropical rainforest after November 2005.

The first approach, dubbed mass balance, monitors the volume of sustainable palm oil entering the supply chain to make sure it doesn’t exceed the amount of product that is grown on sustainable plantations. In mass balance, unsustainable and sustainable oil may be mixed as they travel along the supply chain.

The second approach, segregation, is more rigorous and harder to implement than mass balance. Oil certified as sustainable is segregated from conventional oil at every stage of the supply chain from the plantation through to a food or chemical company’s gates…

Read the whole article here.

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