Palm oil with positive impact, it’s possible!
By Michel Riemersma, Palm Oil Policy Advisor Solidaridad
Palm oil has a negative image. Large-scale plantations, for which rain forests are cut down and farmers are kicked off their land, created a bad reputation. But it does not have to be like that! Sustainably produced palm oil, with attention for biodiversity and the environment, offers enormous opportunities for poverty stricken small-scale farmers to build a better life. Michel Riemersma, Solidaridad’s Policy Advisor on Palm Oil, explains why palm oil doesn't have to be a bad thing...
Imagine a farmers' cooperative growing an agricultural product that provides the local population with food and cooking oil in the most efficient way. It provides the farmers with a higher income than any other crop, and they grow it with respect for the environment and local biodiversity. However, when seeking funding to improve their business, further invest in sustainability and scale, the farmers invariably run into a bias: “Your crop is not sustainable and we do not want to finance that” is what they keep hearing.
This is not a fictional situation. It’s the everyday reality of small-scale oil palm farmers. Palm oil is sometimes seen as synonymous with everything that can be bad about tropical agriculture: deforestation and destruction of nature, land grabbing, human rights violations and poor working conditions. This negative image is partly justified. Between the 2000 to 2015, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, tropical rainforests and peatlands were destroyed on a large scale to grow palm oil. Land conflicts took place and workers were not treated well.
Other side to the story
However, there is also another side to the story; one that receives very little attention. Besides the destructive way in which some palm oil companies have operated, there are also plenty of farmers in Southeast Asia, West Africa and Latin America who produce palm oil in a sustainable manner. This is because palm oil, of all the vegetable oils, produces the most oil per hectare. For example, a piece of land on which oil palms are grown can yield 6 to 10 times more oil than other crops. Oil palms provide 35 percent of the world's vegetable oils but use only 10 percent of the farmland used for oils to do so. A great starting point for sustainable and profitable production.
After all, as with other agricultural products like coffee, cocoa and nuts, it's all about hów they are produced. Deforestation and human rights violations also occur in coffee and cocoa production, but we don't see "coffee-free tea" or "cocoa-free candy" in the supermarket. There seems to be no enthusiasm for boycotting these products, because it is widely accepted that they can also be produced sustainably. And as insiders we know: this is also possible for palm oil.
Palm oil companies and producers of consumer goods and food did not sit still these past few years. Together with the efforts of NGOs and governments in both producing and consuming countries, major improvements have been made in the sector. By now, about 20 percent of global palm oil production is certified according to the standard of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. In 2020 in the Netherlands, as much as 90 percent of the palm oil used in the food industry was RSPO-certified. This means that it meets criteria for, for example, nature protection, the correct use of pesticides and respect for human and labor rights.
Due to circumstances, millions of small-scale farmers are unable to get the most out of their land. Most of the time, they have too little money, insufficient technical resources or insufficient capacity to be able to participate in certification programs. PlusPlus was set up to breakdown these barriers. To invest in new jobs, better food production and enable poor farmers to create a better life. Palm oil is a sector where this is possible. That's why you can now also invest in it, through our latest entrepreneur High Level Farms. This Ghanaian company buys its raw materials from 3,000 small-scale farmers. They grow the oil palms on a small scale, with attention for the environment and biodiversity, and sell the fruit to High Level Farms. And that provides a stable source of income for these farmers.
Palm oil policy advisor Marieke Leegwater of Solidaridad: "The cultivation of oil palms is a very stable source of income for millions of small farmers worldwide. For people living in poverty, palm oil can be of great importance. The fruits of oil palms can be harvested every two weeks, giving small farmers a stable income. This allows them to provide their families with food, health care, education and other necessities in life. Thus, palm oil contributes not only to the social and economic development of small farmers and their families, but also to that of larger communities in less developed areas."
So if you are looking for a sustainable alternative to palm oil, choose sustainably produced palm oil. Or invest in it. You'll make a positive impact with that.