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Towards improved sustainability of palm oil – FiBL publishes assessment report

Even when cultivated in plantations, organic palm oil production systems involve a meaningful plant diversity. Picture of an Agropalma plantation in Brazil. (Photo: FiBL, Thomas Bernet)

Over the last 15 years, global palm oil production has more than doubled. Yet, as the fast expansion of palm oil in many cases goes hand in hand with deforestation, biodiversity losses and land tenure conflicts, the question is if palm oil is indeed more sustainable when produced organically? FiBL has now published the synthesis report of an assessment project on this topic, financed by the Coop Sustainability Fund and the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO).

As a means to explicitly assess the 'sustainability performance' of different palm oil production schemes, FiBL developed the so-called 'palm oil hotspot analysis', which includes 22 explicit 'sustainability hotspots'. This methodological tool was applied in a qualitative assessment of eight different palm oil producing companies in Africa and South America — relating to conventional, RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), fair trade, and organic certification.

The findings reveal important differences in 'sustainability performance' among the visited companies. Conventional farms have a much lower overall 'sustainability scoring' despite playing a key role in creating essential income in rural areas, owing to the fact that they have a high share of (smallholder) farmers supplying fresh fruit bunches (FFBs) to their mills. While the 'RSPO only'-company receives average scores—for the common use of chemicals (i.e. mineral fertilizers and herbicides), which imply lower environment-related scores—all organically certified companies, being also either fair trade or RSPO-certified, receive 'good' and 'very good' scores. For paying higher FFB prices to their outgrower farmers, making considerable social investments, and relying on organic practices (i.e. no use of chemicals), they score high in all impact areas: 'land use', 'oil quality', 'environmental impact', and 'social impact'. Interestingly, for organic companies, the RSPO standard adds important value to organically certified companies: while organic certifications boost environmental performance, the RSPO standard provides an interesting incentive to perform well in 'social accountability' and 'transparency'.

The synthesis report is available online on the Organic Eprints website (see link below).

Further information