Still Seeking: Sustainable Palm Oil

Indonesian rainforest is being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations.©

The world’s major palm oil producers last week announced that they have created a new certification process to ensure ongoing sustainable production and the protection of the world’s remaining tropical rainforests. While details of the new standards as put forth by the industry-led Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) were not disclosed, Reuters reports that participating palm oil producers have agreed to commit to "preserve rainforests and wildlife, avoid conflicts with indigenous people and improve palm oil yields" by early 2008.

Palm oil is the world’s primary feedstock for biodiesel, that cleaner-burning, carbon-neutral and petroleum-free cousin of regular diesel fuel. But as demand for palm oil has risen accordingly along with demand for biodiesel, which can be substituted for regular diesel in most diesel-engine cars and trucks, tropical rainforests have been cut across Indonesia and Malaysia to make room for more and bigger palm plantations. Most environmentalists would like to see biodiesel displace more petroleum-based fuels, but not at the expense of the world’s biodiversity storehouse, its tropical rainforests.

Not surprisingly, environmentalists are skeptical that the RSPO, a trade group founded in 2003 to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil, can do a good job policing its own producers, whose primary motive is profit, not conservation. According to the non-profit Friends of the Earth, the Malaysian and Indonesian governments are enthusiastic about the voluntary industry-led sustainability initiative as it gets them off the hook from legislating for more stringent protections. Meanwhile, another leading environmental group, Greenpeace, released a scathing report last month accusing RSPO members of failing to carry out plans to track palm oil back to the plantations where it was produced, which, the group insists, can only undermine attempts to stamp specific batches of palm oil as sustainably produced.

While such groups would no doubt prefer that an independent third-party group certified palm oil production (like the Forest Stewardship Council for sustainable timber), none have stepped forward with the cash or impetus to get such an organization off the ground in the biofuels industry.

Sources: Mongaby; Planet Ark