How is Colombia's palm oil 'unique and differentiated'?

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

Colombia claims its palm oil is “unique and differentiated” and that it has 44 million hectares of under-utilised, already degraded land to develop it without causing any deforestation.

Producing 1.6 million tonnes annually, Colombia’s accounts for 2% of global palm oil. This may seem like a drop in the ocean compared to Malaysia and Indonesia’s joint 85%, but that still makes it the fourth biggest palm producing country in the world and the biggest in Latin America.

The country is also on a mission to increase its production and is confident it can do this sustainably, said the national trade group Fedepalma at a meeting with FoodNavigator and other trade journalists at its headquarters in Bogota during a press trip organised by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

Fedepalma has made several trips to Europe recently to convince EU policymakers that Colombian palm oil is “unique and differentiated​”.

The Colombian industry wants to distance itself from the environmental problems besetting the commodity in Southeast Asia, and says the country has land available to develop its agricultural sector

These 44 million hectares of predominantly pasture land are said to be already degraded and the government has drawn up palm oil suitability maps identifying areas the crop could be grown without damaging biodiversity.

A zero deforestation commitment​ ​(in Spanish), signed earlier this year, is also proof of this commitment, said Ivan Valencia, a consultant specialising in Deforestation in supply chains at the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development.

“We want to decouple the agricultural growth that we want to have in Colombia from deforestation. This is one way to do it and palm oil is one of the key sectors to show that it can work.”

'A national incentive'

There is a “national incentive​” to stick to the commitment, Valencia added , particularly as the negative spotlight on palm oil in buyer regions such as Europe grows.

“The incentive is that the whole country wants to differentiate itself from the palm oil market worldwide," ​he said. “We want to show the world that palm oil in Colombia has a limited impact on deforestation and we want to keep it that way because we acknowledge the risks that we may have in the near future. Of course, as a country, we want to increase palm oil production but we want to do it in a sustainable way.”

However, not all companies have signed the deforestation pact and family-owned supplier Daabon, is one.  

'Palm oil is not linked to deforestation in Colombia'

Head of sustainability at Daabon Felipe Guerrero said this was because it believes deforestation in Colombia is not driven by palm oil, and it is committed to sustainably producing agricultural commodities in different ways.

For example, it grows RSPO Next, identity preserved palm oil, Fair Trade bananas and Rainforest Alliance coffee, all of which are certified organic.

Another way will be integrating its businesses practices into the country’s reconciliation. The Colombian government has identified the palm oil sector in particular as a way to provide stable jobs in the post-conflict period.  

Guerrero said that for Daabon, this - along with adapting to climate change - will be one of the biggest challenges facing the company, describing it as “a new condition for the company and the country”.

Increasing uptake of RSPO

In 2017, only 14% of Colombia’s crude palm oil was RSPO-certified, according to Fedepalma – although this is a sharp rise given that in 2013 the figure was just 2%.

“There are definitely bright spots globally in terms of certification, and Latin America is definitely one of the bright spots,” ​said Dan Strechay at the RSPO. “We’ve had a good increase in the number of certified hectares and that’s really exciting.”

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