Voted in on Thursday and Friday night last week, the tax will apply at a rate of €30 per tonne in 2017 rising to €50 in 2018, €70 in 2019 and €90 in 2020. This is a far cry from the amount originally put forward by the Senate, which would have seen the levy rise progressively from €300 to €900 per tonne for the same period.
Secretary of state for biodiversity, Barbara Pompili said: “This tax is more realistic […] We do not want to boycott these two countries, nor palm oil.”
Socialist deputy Jean-Louis Bricourt said it was a question of “not suddenly destabilising the supplies of companies based in France, as well as the income of oil-producers, which are mainly located in developing countries".
The law had been slammed as arrogant and excessive by major oil-producing countries Malaysia and Indonesia, while Fediol, the European trade group that represents the interests of the vegetable oil industry, called the law discriminatory.
The bill exempts palm oil produced by certified sustainable standards. But for some politicians, certified sustainable criteria are currently too weak for this amendment to have any teeth.
Geneviève Gaillard of the Socialist party said sustainable certification was “still not at a top level” while ecologist senator, Aline Achimbaud, said certified sustainable plantations were no less dangerous for the environment than non-certified ones.
Unlike palm oil used for biofuels, there is no single definition of sustainability for palm oil in the food industry.
Criteria set by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) remains the benchmark for certified sustainable palm oil, but its guidelines are negotiated by members – which includes food industry suppliers, manufacturers and retailers as well as NGOs and governments – and it also allows some leeway for ‘national interpretations’.
Nevertheless, speaking in French on TV channel TF1, Greenpeace campaigner Jerome Frignet, welcomed the tax.
“We have on the one hand a [tax that is] punitive – we tax a product that leads to deforestation – and on the other hand we have an approach that incentivises. Oil that has been produced on plantations that do not contribute to deforestation is exempt from the tax.”
Meanwhile better certification is on the agenda.
Debating the amendments earlier this month, Pompili said: "We want to work with producer countries to better certification, which would help them to develop sustainable production.
"The Ministry is preparing within this framework a coherent plan of action on this subject to ensure serious sustainable palm oil certification and to ensure as much as possible favorable taxation adapted to the sustainable industry."
The tax will only be applied to palm oil used by the food industry, which accounts for around half of France’s import of the ingredient.
Last year French ecology minister Ségolène Royal provoked indignation of Italian confectionery manufacturer, Ferrero, when she called for a boycott of the company’s iconic Nutella brand on the grounds it used unsustainable palm oil.
Ferrero was quick to point out all palm oil used in its hazelnut chocolate spread is RSPO - certified to the mill, prompting an apology from Royal.