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Europe moves to restrict import of unsustainable palm oil

Editor’s note: Earlier this month, the European Parliament passed a resolution aiming to limit the import of palm oil that has caused deforestation. The Parliament also called for new sustainability criteria for palm oil entering the European market. The Parliament’s report, while not binding, could pave the way for binding legislation in Europe that could reshape the palm oil industry.

In a recent interview, Human Nature spoke with Cecile Schneider, a European policy manager at Conservation International (CI), about the report and its ramifications for one of the most widely used commodities in the world.

Question: It seems that Europe has been especially active on trying to ensure sustainability of palm oil. Can you give us some context?

Answer: Palm oil is nearly ubiquitous in consumer products but it has been linked to deforestation; about 80 percent of deforestation worldwide is caused by unsustainable agricultural expansion. Of course this has negative impacts for the climate, for biodiversity and critical habitats as well as for human health.

But by importing these products — which include not just palm oil but beef, soy, maize, rice, cocoa and timber — the European Union (EU) is part of this problem. Between 1990 and 2008, for example, the EU was the leading importer of products linked to deforestation — causing an area of deforestation at least the size of Portugal.

Q: This would explain why there is a growing movement in Europe in recent years to boycott palm oil entirely.

A: Yes, and we think that this is actually a bad idea — oil palm is a very efficient and high-yielding oil crop, producing up to eight times more oil from the same amount of land as soy, rapeseed or sunflower. Moreover, millions of people depend on palm oil for their livelihoods, as is now mentioned in the final report.

Q: So tell us a bit more about this report.

A: Well, the objective of this report is to reduce the EU footprint on tropical forests in Indonesia, Liberia and the Amazon. In fact CI Europe influenced the draft report, promoting a more balanced view of this controversial commodity and asking for EU action that would encourage sustainable production on the ground.

Q: How is palm oil certification seen in Europe?

A: Well, palm oil certification at present is mostly voluntary and the different schemes face challenges in the compliance with their criteria, and so initially, there was criticism among the members of the European Parliament (MEPs) that these efforts did not go far enough. What CI Europe did during the recent discussions was to encourage them to recognize that certification schemes have brought about positive contributions to sustainable production on the ground so far. Despite persistent challenges, the value of certification must be put in the proper context: Certification is not the end goal for sustainable production, rather it is one tool of many that can be used to promote more sustainable production practices.

Q: So from this talk of boycotts and rejecting certification, it sounds like the initial report was pretty firmly against palm oil. What kind of effects would we have seen with a “harsher” stance?

A: Indeed it was very critical, and as initially drafted, it would have had negative impacts for sustainable palm oil production on the ground — the fierce criticism of palm oil as a product is already leading the industry to replace it with less efficient vegetable oils such as soy, as I mentioned. This in turn reduces the financial investment, corporate pressure and political will to actually try to make palm oil production sustainable! It would have only showed one side of a complex story, leaving out the perspective of people in palm oil-producing countries, who rely on palm oil production for their economic development.

In Europe, it is important to recognize this perspective and the challenges facing producers in places like Indonesia and to look for constructive policy solutions. For example, how can palm oil producers (both companies and small-scale farmers) optimize production without further expanding into important forest areas? There are many opportunities to achieve this in current plantations, in contrast with planting in new locations. CI believes that in finding these solutions, we also find a key solution to addressing climate change. Our ability to conserve existing forest areas provides a means of mitigating future risks and negative impacts due to changing climate.

Q: So what does CI recommend for how Europe should go about this?

A: Our stance is that policy makers should be working toward 100% sustainable palm oil in the EU by 2020. This was endorsed in the Amsterdam Declaration adopted in 2015 by the European palm oil industry and six European countries [Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Denmark and Norway]. One of these policies would be to prioritize demand from and investment in integrated landscape approaches, such as CI’s Sustainable Landscape Partnership in Indonesia.

In this regard, CI Europe is very pleased that the report calls for the provision of technical and financial assistance to producing countries to strengthen their land-registry regimes and improve the environmental sustainability of palm oil plantations. These measures, if approved by the other EU institutions, will drive positive change in producing countries.

Q: So will this report finally bring to a halt European’s “imported deforestation”?

A: No — at least not yet. We underscored to MEPs that singling out palm oil alone is not going to reduce the impact of EU consumption on global deforestation. Half of the deforestation caused by EU consumption between 1990 and 2008 that I mentioned earlier was actually caused by soy imports. Thankfully, CI Europe’s call for an EU Action Plan for Deforestation and Forest Degradation — tackling all agriculture commodities associated with deforestation — was also taken up in the final report. That is a hopeful sign.

Cecile Schneider is a policy manager for CI Europe. Bruno Vander Velde is CI’s editorial director.

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