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Sustainable Palm Oil: What the Fuss Is All About

Palm oil fruits

Palm oil is currently the most produced vegetable oil in the world, and as it is, there is a growing concern that oil palm cultivation could have environmental and social side effects. Oil palm cultivation on forests could impact wildlife such as orang utans and the Sumatran tigers as they would be driven away from their natural habitat and get exposed to human activities.

As for the social side effects, there are reports of plantations that violated the rights of their workers by not giving fair wages and safe working conditions as well as displacements of communities that used to live or farm in the cultivation areas.

Because of these issues, palm oil receives quite a bad name as there are NGOs that are actively campaigning on boycotting palm oil and every product made of it. So in 2003, several palm oil producers and processors, retailers, food companies, WWF and Oxfam International formed Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). It is set to promote palm oil that is produced in a more responsible way, both socially and environmentally.

So what does sustainable palm oil mean? It means that everyone in the palm oil industry, from plantations to millers, making minimal impact on the environment from the time of planting to the time of processing the oil in the mills.

To help define sustainable palm oil productions, the RSPO has set on a few criteria. Among others, palm oil plantations must reduce deforestation by developing new plantings in a more responsible way. Also, palm oil plantations must apply best practices such as respecting the basic rights and living conditions of millions of plantation workers and the indigenous people living around the plantations.

Orang utans are in danger of becoming extinct

Plantations and mills are also subjected to audits by independent certification agencies to ensure that they are operating in a sustainable way. They are certified as producing sustainable palm oil to assure consumers that the products they are using are indeed made in a sustainable way.

As the second largest palm oil producer, Malaysia is also undertaking serious actions to meet the challenges of sustainability.  For example, in 2011 the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) released the Malaysian Palm Oil Sustainability Manual that lists out the principles and procedures that should be followed by plantations and millers to achieve sustainability.

About 40 million tons of palm oil are produced worldwide, and about half of that are produced by the members of RSPO. With RSPO aiming to have all palm oil certified, we hope that with ongoing efforts by RSPO and its members, we will finally be able to use sustainable palm oil without sacrificing our environments and the people that are poorly impacted by it.

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