This morning 640 MEPs voted in favour of the proposals aimed at substantially changing regulations for the world’s second biggest consumer of palm oil, the EU. They were met with only 18 votes against, and 28 abstentions.
Put forward by MEP Kateřina Konečná, leader of the Czech communist party of Bohemia and Moravia, the motion calls on the commission to implement a range of measures aimed at eliminating deforestation and destruction of natural habitats in the palm oil supply chain.
The report urges the commission to commit to the elimination of palm oil use in biofuels by 2020 at the latest, and mount pressure on existing palm oil sustainability schemes to improve their standards – with a view to introducing a unified Europe wide certification scheme.
Currently independent schemes such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), (which certifies 21% of world palm oil as sustainable and includes members such as Nestlé, Wilmar (the world’s chief supplier of the product) and Unilever) do not enforce blanket bans on forest and peatland clearance for suppliers and their respective producers.
Just last week, both Nestlé and Wilmar were implicated in illegal forest clearance in Indonesia’s Leuser ecosystem, one of the world’s most endangered habits.
Recommendations and reaction
Danielle Morley, outreach and engagement director at RSPO, said the organisation welcomes the motion.
“I don’t think it’s a game changer, but we see this as giving an important political signal, Europe is the second biggest palm oil market on earth and this provides an important symbol that the EC and EU have an expectation that governments and industry step up on deforestation.
“So far the movement has been led by NGOs and commercial industries, so its good to see proper government support taking shape.
“Many companies have already made commitments; the work now is to make sure that everyone is stepping up to fulfil them. We see this as more of a political call for support; they are also calling on the commission to complete studies on what the next steps would be in terms of policy – different schemes for palm oil.”
However, the motion is proposing a single mandatory scheme for sustainable palm oil certification throughout Europe, something Morley said would be less efficient than having “schemes that work at scale across a commodity”.
In response to the motion’s call for the commission to put pressure on groups such as the RSPO to require zero land clearance from its members, Morley said:
“We are just now launching a consultative review of the RSPO standard, which is done each five years. The RSPO standard already protects primary & high conservation value forest & recommends best practice for peatland planting; and RSPO Next are an existing set of additional criteria for companies that want to certify their commitments to zero deforestation & no planting on peat.”
The RSPO Next standards are a voluntary option for companies who wish to add even further to their sustainability credentials, but today’s vote could see these standards become obligatory.
‘Error strewn’ fake news?
Voices within the industry have met the result of the vote with ambivalence; Anita Neville, vice president of corporate communications and sustainability at Golden Agri-Resources, Indonesia's largest grower of palm oil, told FoodNavigator:
“The EU is right to recognise that palm oil can be grown sustainably and has a major role in economic development, especially when 40% of the Indonesian crop is grown by smallholder farmers.
“The EU is already driving responsible production through demand for sustainable palm oil. My view is that instead of cutting back, the EU should instead go further in its support - the EU can achieve much more by acting as a powerful incentive for sustainable development than by limiting ties."
The motion also faces heavy criticism in many corners, including agronomist and environmental expert Pierre Bois d’Enghien, who in a blog post on Euractiv said:
“As someone with 30 years’ experience in agricultural development, specializing in sustainability in the Palm Oil sector, this Report is one of the most error-strewn documents I have ever read. I find it difficult to understand why Members of the European Parliament would vote through such a report.
“In the age of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’, the European Parliament should be meticulous in supporting only credible and evidence-based work. The report on Palm Oil falls well short on both these counts.
The report’s stated aim is to advance sustainable forest management, and sustainable agricultural production. However, the recommendations put forward do not advance these goals at all – in fact, the proposals would be actively harmful for the environment, harmful for poverty reduction in Africa and Asia, and insulting to our trading partners on those continents.”
Bois d’Enghien claims the motion, if enforced as a resolution, would damage small rural palm growers, insult them as “rabid forest-destroyers” and diminish the social sustainability of palm oil generally.
He added that the environmental impacts of palm oil production were also imagined – pointing to its status as the most efficient oil seed crop, and expansion of forest areas in palm producing countries such as Malaysia.
“The best advice I can give to the Commission is to conduct their research independently, and to ignore completely this report from MEP Konecna. If the European Union is really serious about advancing the goals of sustainable development, it would be better served listening to the people and governments of Africa and Asia, instead of lecturing them” he concluded.
However given the relentless flow of reports showing the illegal destruction of natural habitats, it is unlikely the European Parliament will adopt Bois d’Enghien’s view.
Now that the vote has passed, President Juncker will be charged with deciding the next step.