Shaping the future of palm oil

Here's a look at three pathways to creating a bright future for palm oil cultivation.

Monique van Wijnbergen, Sustainability and Corporate Communication Director

July 17, 2019

5 Min Read

Looking into the future we know that palm oil is here to stay. Palm oil is a superior vegetable oil when done right. It brings functional benefits to markets and economic progress to producing countries, so it has the capacity to bring benefits to many.  But it is up to all of us to decide what the future for palm oil will look like. We can create a bright tomorrow when we make the right choices.

There is plenty of innovation taking place in creating new pathways for agricultural development, that we can also use in shaping the future of palm oil. This article will be highlighting approaches and research that we can all learn from and adopt for oil palm development and production.

Landscape approach

One pathway to shaping the future for oil palm cultivation is adopting a landscape management approach instead of focusing on individual farmers and a single crop. A narrow focus on individual plantations and commodities makes it difficult to address district or provincial level deforestation, wildlife habitat loss and other land resource management issues that often continue to take place in a region, even when a large number of plantations operating in that area have adopted sustainable practices and are certified sustainable.

A landscape level approach has the potential to simultaneously address challenges like deforestation, biodiversity loss and community exploitation, while at the same time ensuring the high-level production of commodities markets are seeking.

One example of a landscape approach, which is being implemented, is the PPI-approach developed by the Sustainable Trade Initiative. PPI stands for “Production, Protection, Inclusion” and combines sustainably increasing productivity to make the best use of land and reduce environmental impact, protection of forests and natural resources, and inclusion of farmers and communities in sustainable production of a diverse range of commodities, food crops and services.

To date the Sustainable Trade Initiative is field testing the PPI-approach in 12 landscapes in eight countries. Palm oil production is integrated in six of these landscapes. To learn more about the PPI landscape management approach read the extracts of the programs that are implemented across the globe.

Effective biodiversity support

With nature declining at an alarming rate and species extinctions accelerating it is crucial we adopt approaches that protect species diversity in palm growing regions. Ensuring forest protection and supporting biodiversity go hand in hand. To date many of the conservation areas set aside are too small to support biodiversity.

Research conducted by University of Oxford ecologist Dr. Jennifer Lucey demonstrated that, in order to effectively support biodiversity, a minimum size of conservation area needs to be set aside on plantations. A biodiversity-supportive approach demands that each tract of land must have a core area of a few hundreds of hectares of rainforest to be able to support significant numbers of species and support forest regeneration. In the research it was found that smaller patches do not support significantly more species than the oil palm crop itself.

Dr. Lucey’s research has been used in the development of the High Carbon Stock (HCS) approach, a methodology for putting ‘no-deforestation’ into practice, now adopted as a new criterion by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) for strengthening ‘no deforestation’ standards. With this strengthening of the RSPO’s ‘no deforestation’ policy, larger areas of forests will be protected, contributing to supporting biodiversity in an industry characterized by high levels of deforestation and wildlife habitat destruction.

Climate smart agriculture

Oil palm cultivation must become climate smart. Yet what does that mean and how do we put it into practice? Many approaches have been researched and tested to transition our current agricultural practices toward practices that are climate smart. It is clear we need a suite of solutions and a combination of approaches: renewable energy and energy efficiency to lower the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as well as stripping carbon dioxide out of the air.

Stopping the increase of GHG emissions, and reducing it, is our first priority.  But this alone will not be enough. We need to draw down carbon as well. Stopping forest clearing and planting trees to expand global tree cover is one pathway for carbon sequestration. The other pathway is to store carbon in the soil, through the scaling up of regenerative agricultural systems. One system that is promising is regenerative organic agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture is “a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds and enhances ecosystem services. It aims to capture carbon in soil and aboveground biomass, reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation. At the same time it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability and higher health and vitality for farming communities.”

The Rodale Institute has proven that “organic agriculture and, specifically, regenerative organic agriculture can sequester carbon from the atmosphere and reverse climate change.” The Institute published an insightful whitepaper “Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change” that outlines findings and data that “we can sequester more that 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available organic management practices," that the Rodale Institute terms ‘regenerative organic agriculture.’ “These practices work to maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of carbon once returned to the soil, reversing the greenhouse effect.”

The near future will reveal whether organic regenerative agriculture is indeed one of the core solutions we are all in need of. It is very promising and rightfully receives support from highly reputable companies like Dr. Bronner’s, New Barn Organics, Patagonia and many more.

This article touches the surface of three approaches that we believe are important steps forward to build a bright future for palm oil. These concepts and approaches will need to be broken down into implementable steps for us to move forward. To dig deeper, Palm Done Right will continue to explore this topic with a series of bi-weekly blogs in which we will invite the views of different players in the palm sector for their insights and best practices.

This is the fourth article in a four-part series designed to demystify the complex topic of palm oil and help individuals separate fact from fiction, to make choices that are good for people and the planet. Monique van Wijnbergen, Natural Habitat’s sustainability and corporate communications director, is a company spokesperson for Palm Done Right, an international campaign to raise awareness around the positive ripple effects that happen when palm oil is grown for good.

About the Author(s)

Monique van Wijnbergen

Sustainability and Corporate Communication Director, Natural Habitats Group

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