Science confirms: palm oil is unsustainable even if certified

A new study shows that even the RSPO and POIG certified plantations derive from the recent deforestation of the forests of Southeast Asia

Globalization of palm oil represents a serious threat to the biological diversity of Southeast Asia, even when the production is certified as sustainable. For the first time, in fact, a new study just published in the journal “Science of the Total Environment” (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.10.222) by the Italian biologist Dr. Roberto Cazzolla Gatti and its colleagues, shows that the palm oil certified as “sustainable” comes, however, from the recent degradation of tropical forest habitats.

«In this research – said Dr. Cazzolla Gatti, Research Associate at the Forest Advanced Computing & Artificial Intelligence (FACAI) Lab of the Department of Natural Sciences and Forestry (FNR) of Purdue University in the USA and Associate Professor at the Tomsk State University in Russia – we showed why the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certification and the POIG (Palm Oil Innovation Group) initiative are inefficient as concrete means to stop the degradation of forests and the loss of biodiversity. In other words, to truly protect the environment, certified palm oil should not be considered sustainable”.

Using the most updated datasets available to science, including those from the Global Forest Watch, Greenpeace International, the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry, the RSPO and the Aidenvironment, the study’s authors analyzed 15 years of forest cover change in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea to understand whether the idea that palm oil can be sustainable is fiction or reality. «We have discovered – the study of Dr. Cazzolla Gatti and colleagues reports – that from 2001 to 2016 about 40% of the area present in the current RSPO concessions suffered a significant habitat degradation (caused by deforestation, fires or other damage to the trees) before being converted into oil plantations and that this loss of tree cover occurred both before and after the start of the RSPO agreement (2004) and the POIG initiative (2013). The result is that the certified concessions do not differ much from those not certified. This gives us reason to consider any certified production of palm oil as not completely free from deforestation.”

The industrial production of palm oil usually begins with the logging and burning of primary tropical forests to plant oil palm trees (of the species Elaeis guineensis) and to obtain a refined oil mainly used by the food and cosmetic industries. The consequences for human health of the daily intake of palm oil are still under discussion, but the significant loss of forests and the degradation of ecosystems caused by the cultivation of this palms for oil production are of even more concern.

«The elimination of vast areas of forest in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea for monocultures of oil palms – said Dr. Cazzolla Gatti – is putting in serious danger even the last species of orangutans that survived on our planet».

In 2004 the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was launched by a group made up of companies, banks, investors and non-governmental environmental organizations (NGOs) to create a market for the sustainable palm oil. The goal of the RSPO (which now includes over 3,000 members) is to develop a set of environmental and social criteria that companies must adhere to produce certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO). According to the RSPO, when these criteria are correctly applied, the negative impact of palm oil cultivation on the environment and communities in the producing regions can be reduced to a minimum.

However, since its start, the RSPO certification has been questioned as a concrete means to stop forest degradation and the loss of biodiversity. In fact, RSPO certified companies should ensure that forests are assessed for their high conservation values (HCV) before starting a new cultivation and, after the recent strengthening through the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), that plantations do not damage areas high carbon stock (HCS).

Although most of the concerns of environmental NGOs are due to the fact that the RSPO-POIG certifications allow the removal of trees and the establishment of oil palm plantations in any forest not identified as HCV or HCS, the study conducted by Dr. Cazzolla Gatti and colleagues suggest that an often hidden and even more worrying aspect concerning the “sustainable” palm oil is the fact that this comes, however, from the recent loss of tropical forests.

“As the world market for palm oil continues to expand thanks to the growing demand of the food and cosmetics industry – concluded the authors of the study, Drs. Roberto Cazzolla Gatti, Jingjing Liang, Alena Velichevskaya and Mo Zhou – it is fundamental to accurately quantify the economic and environmental costs and benefits of the current “sustainable” production of palm oil, based on the most recent data available as done in our analysis, to evaluate alternative policies and tools to improve its effectiveness. Palm oil substitutes that have less environmental impacts should be a research priority, but as long as the environmental costs of production are not internalized in its price, this oil will continue to dominate the market and cause catastrophic damage to tropical forests. We suggest economic incentives at national level to reduce the consumption of fatty and unhealthy food and to promote the use of non-tropical oils of national origin (such as rapeseed, olive, sunflower, flax, etc.) in food and cosmetics (something that many European brands have already independently started to do to face the growing consumer concerns). These measures would discourage the totally unsustainable use of palm oil in the global market and would be much more effective than any certification scheme for environmental sustainability.

In short, we now have the scientific basis for stating that sustainable palm oil may not exist and that, unfortunately, no certification may be effective in stopping the destruction of the wonderful tropical forests.

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