Manufacturers are increasingly sensitive to sustainability issues around palm oil, but it would be disastrous to stop using it altogether, says secretary general of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) Darrel Webber.
Speaking with FoodNavigator ahead of the organisation’s 10th annual roundtable meeting later this month, Webber said that awareness of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) is on the cusp of exponential growth – promising to provide the processing benefits that food manufacturers seek, such as long shelf life and stability, without causing environmental damage in palm oil producing countries.
Palm oil – of the kind that the RSPO does not certify – has come in for global criticism, as plantations are thought to have led to deforestation in parts of Asia, destroying habitats and affecting biodiversity.
Market researchers have started to see a trend of companies moving away from palm oil toward other oil crops, like sunflower and oilseed rape, and ‘palm oil free’ is a claim making headway with some manufacturers. According to market research organisation Mintel, there were 72 new products in Europe carrying such a claim front of pack in 2011, compared to 16 in 2010. Up to the end of July this year, there were 66 new products bearing the claim, and France accounted for 80% of those.
“One of the big signals we need to send out is that certified sustainable palm oil is making a big impact throughout the world,” Webber said.
How can we produce oil sustainably?
“…In some markets there is already a high degree of sensitivity toward palm oil and there might be a preference for certified palm oil, but I would hate to see people turning away from palm oil without understanding what they are doing….Something else has to replace it.”
“Agriculture has a huge footprint in general…. Instead of veering away from one particular oil, why don’t we talk about how we can produce oil sustainably?”
Currently, there are 103 product ranges that carry the CSPO trademark, including big food manufacturers and retailers such as Carrefour and Marks & Spencer, so the number of SKUs carrying the CSPO seal is much larger.
Webber says that increasing uptake of certified palm oil helps to ensure not only the protection of the environment, but also social protections for palm oil producing communities.
One of the next steps for the organisation will be to take CSPO into what he calls the ‘new frontiers’ of Africa and Latin America.
Although most palm oil is produced in Southeast Asia today, the oil palm actually originated in Africa, Webber says, where it is still used for everyday food. However, its commercial use in the continent is still fairly small scale. The RSPO is keen to ensure that if palm oil production scales up, it will be done in a sustainable manner.
“It’s important that the industry takes on board RSPO in places like Africa,” he said, as the organisation looks to take stock of how much success certification has had among smallholders, as well as how it can encourage more to take on the CSPO seal.
“I hope that brands will use the trademark more, as it is a strong signal to the market,” he said.
The 10th Annual Roundtable Meeting on Sustainable Palm Oil is due to take place from October 30 to November 1 in Singapore. More information, including how to register, is available online here .