In August, the international organization formed in 2004 to implement standards for sustainable palm oil production announced it had certified a total of 2.5 million acres of production area around the world. It's a new record in an industry plagued by greed, underhanded business tactics and grave environmental concerns.
According to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the acreage devoted to sustainable operations now represents 10% of global palm oil production. The RSPO's efforts include the industry's top oil producers: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil, all of them home to dense palm forests and farms.
Palm oil is popular with food manufacturers for several reasons. It's relatively inexpensive, has a quantifiable health profile as an ingredient (trans fat- and cholesterol-free, heart-healthy and rich in beta carotene) and is extremely versatile.
The rise of better-for-you foods and bans on ingredients such as trans fats placed increasing demand on palm processors and farmers, who in turn have adopted farming methods that environmentalists say threatens to destroy the habitats of endangered species, promote deforestation and greatly exacerbate greenhouse gas emissions.
“We must continue to contend with challenges,” stated Darrel Webber, the RSPO's secretary general.
Some hurdles are extremely difficult to clear. Illegal logging and a sluggish response by local government prompted environmental groups to take to the streets, in some cases dressed as the animals threatened by the farming techniques being used. In 2008, members of Greenpeace cavorted outside of Unilever's London headquarters disguised in orangutan suits; similar high-profile stunts against other multi-national corporations ensued.
The wake-up call was heard more loudly this year. Ingredient supplier Cargill said that the palm oil products it supplies to its customers in Europe, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand will be RSPO-certified by 2015, and extended to all customers worldwide — including China and India — by 2020. General Mills said it will “strive to source 100% of our palm oil from responsible and sustainable sources by 2015” even though the company's use of palm oil is modest — about one-tenth of 1% of world production. Companies of all sizes are making similar commitments.
“It's good not only for our customers and the environment, it's good for business,” said Steven Fairbarn, a Cargill spokesman.