New regulations to stop deforestation due to the production of palm oil can only succeed if brands and consumers buy larger amounts of certified oil as ecological and ethical, say industry representatives and activists for environmental protection.
A round table on sustainable palm oil (RSPO) in Kuala Lumpur, a global watchdog, comprising over 4,000 members, including producers, traders, buyers and environmental groups, adopted a more rigorous set of guidelines this month.
The new standards include the banning of deforestation or the conversion of peatlands into oil palm plantations and greater protection of workers' rights and land.
"I hope that the rest of the supply chain will not relinquish its responsibilities … because many breeders make a big leap of faith," said Darrel Webber, president of RSPO, the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Palm oil is the world's most widely used edible oil found in everything from margarine to biscuits and soap for soup.
However, in recent years, the industry has been thoroughly tested by green activists and consumers who blamed it for the loss of forests and fires, as well as for the exploitation of workers.
This month the British supermarket chain Iceland was banned from holiday advertisements on television, which underlined the destruction of rainforests associated with the production of palm oil, because it was considered to violate the principles of political advertising.
Under the pressure of tightening standards from investors, buyers, retailers and even some large manufacturers, RSPO faced the difficult task of capturing members with different interests at a critical time for the industry.
"The new RSPO is transforming the production of palm oil (but) where is the similar action in the transformation of buying sustainable palm oil?" Said Simon Lord, head of the sustainable development department at the Malaysian Sime Darby Plantation. "He's not here".
Before the end of the last five-year RSPO reviews, the largest buyers who bought palm oil, such as Nestle, PepsiCo and Unilever, pledged to zero deforestation by 2020.
It will cost more money to comply with new rules, say the palm grower. To justify inputs, large brands and other entities need to increase the demand for RSPO certified palm oil, experts say.
"It is not cheap to implement these high standards, so it is fair to share costs across the supply chain," said Grant Rosoman, campaign advisor for the Greenpeace International region in the Asia-Pacific region.
Balanced palm oil accounts for about one-fifth of global production, estimated at 12.3 million tonnes per year, and is sold at a surcharge – but demand only covers half of the deliveries.
While the new standards represent a "big leap forward" in terms of environmental and social commitments, the risk of failure will be high without new support for increased demand for certified palm oil, said Carl Bek-Nielsen, general manager of Malaysia United Plantations.
"Now it all depends on pushing demand and acceptance, if it does not happen … this big movement may fall apart," said the breeder, who is also the co-chairman of the RSPO.
Nestle supports higher standards and will work with RSPO to implement them, Benjamin Ware, the global head of responsible supply in an international food company, said by e-mail.
The company intends to buy 100% RSPO certified oil by 2023. It also implements satellite monitoring, employee helplines and projects to help small owners achieve deforestation goals by 2020, added Ware.
According to the new RSPO regulations, there is a risk of disgusting smaller palm oil producers, many of whom are already struggling to meet the old standards, experts say.
To avoid this, RSPO will develop a separate standard of sustainability for small producers, after discussing their needs – said Webber.
Rosoman from Greenpeace said that the new rules must be enforced in the field and warned that a period of one to two years to put them into practice could lead to further deforestation.
"We need to sharpen the existing implementation," he said, calling for more transparency and monitoring of the plantations.