The Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis): Research Challenges Beyond Controversies


Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement

Jakarta, Indonesia



Institut de Recherche pour le Développement

Yaoundé, Cameroon


Scientists certainly have a part to play in the debate over oil palm (Elaeis guineensis Jacq.) cultivation, which has captured and polarized public opinion, kindled and undoubtedly shaped by the media. How can this palm be viewed as a “miracle plant” by both the agro-food industry in the North and farmers in the tropical zone, but a serious ecological threat by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) campaigning for the environment or the rights of indigenous peoples? The time has come to move on from this biased and often irrational debate, which is rooted in topical issues of contemporary society in the North, such as junk food, biodiversity, energy policy and ethical consumption.

One of the reasons the public has developed such fixed ideas is that there has been a lack of accurate information on the sector and its actors and a clear-headed analysis of what is at stake. We point out that the production and processing of palm oil are part of a complex globalized agrom-industrial sector shared by multiple actors and stakeholders with often conflicting interests. For the first time ever, it is not a major technological innovation (such as nuclear energy, genetically modified crops or shale gas) that is causing controversy but an entire agrom-food sector that has come to symbolize the conflict between the conservation of natural spaces and de-velopment. Consumers, elected representatives and scientists are finally forced to take sides for or against palm oil, with no room for ifs and buts, and very few of them are willing to switch positions.

Distributors, processors, NGOs and journalists have often deliberately overstated the case and resorted to short cuts (oil palm means deforestation) or superficial information (good/bad fats) to make their point. This type of debate relies on clear-cut and definitive opinions, whereas researchers naturally tend to query, test out and weigh up each argument. They have nuanced and complex messages to convey (Rival & Levang 2014) that are incompatible with the format imposed by the media.

The present article is aimed at clarifying some issues and developments and at highlighting challenges for researchers in several multidisciplinary fields embracing agronomy, forestry, breeding, ecology or social and human sciences. Both the public and the oil palm sector are waiting for immediate, applicable, robust and credible results, and this creates unique opportunities for multi- disciplinary and collaborative research initiatives.

Two palms, two oils


The African oil palm, Elaeis guineensis.

The oil palm, Elaeis guineensis Jacq. follows a strictly tropical distribution, and its main enemies are cold (it stops growing at 15°C) and drought (Jacquemard 2012). Two species of Elaeis are exploited for their oils: E. guineensis of African origin (Gulf of Guinea) and E. oleifera (Kunth) Cortés of American origin (Amazon Basin). These two species produce oil of very different chemical composition, the oil extracted from E. oleifera being richer in unsaturated fatty acids. It is possible to hybridize the two species; plant breeders are interested in this prospect because E. oleifera has morpho-agronomic features that could serve to improve the African palm, which is the main species cultivated today. Indeed, the Amazon palm has a slower growth rate that allows for a longer period of cultivation because bunches hanging above 15 m on older palms become difficult to harvest.


Harvesting of oil palm fruits in North Sumatra, Indonesia. Old stands providing low oil yields and being more difficult to exploit are replaced by new plantations with improved cultivars with slower growth, better disease tolerance and higher oil yield.

Elaeis oleifera also demonstrates resistance to diseases such as bud rot, which has a dramatic impact in Latin America. In this region, planters have no alternative but to plant palms from hybrid origin. Another asset of the hybrid is the quality of its oil, which is lower in saturated fatty acids than the African palm oil.

One fruit, two oils

Within the plant kingdom, the oil palm has a unique feature: its fruit contains two oils of strikingly different composition.


The oil palm fruit.

The fruit pulp provides palm oil, which is half saturated fatty acids and half unsaturated fatty acids, made up of 44% palmitic acid (saturated fatty acid), 5% stearic acid (saturated fatty acid), 39% oleic acid (monounsaturated) and 10% linoleic acid (polyunsaturated). Negligible quantities of myristic and lauric acid are also found (remaining 2%).

Oil palm seeds provide palm kernel oil with a chemical composition similar to coconut oil. A significant proportion of kernel oil (82%) is made up of saturated fatty acids, namely 48% lauric acid, 16% myristic acid and 8% palmitic acid. Nearly 18% of kernel oil is unsaturated, with 15% made up of oleic acid (mono- unsaturated) and 3% linoleic acid (poly- unsaturated). This oil accounts for about 10% of oil palm yield. It is therefore more than just a by-product in terms of the industry’s balance sheet. It has the same uses as coconut oil with which it is in direct competition. The numerous uses for palm kernel oil include cooking oil, when mixed with other vegetable oils, margarine, soaps, cosmetics and oleo- chemicals.

Record-breaking oil yields

The oil palm shows quite exceptional oil yields of 3.8 tons per hectare (t/ha) as a global average, nearly 6 t/ha in the best plantations in Southeast Asia and more than 10 t/ha in the highest yielding genetic trials currently underway in research institutes. Such yields place the oil palm at the head of industrial oil crops.


Comparative oil yields between major oil crops.

The proportion of palm oil in worldwide production of vegetable oils has continued to grow over recent decades to reach the number one spot, ahead of soybean. Today, it accounts for over a third of the vegetable oil produced worldwide .

Share of palm oil in the global market (statistics from 2013).

Share of palm oil in the global market (statistics from 2013).

Although it occupies only 7% of agricultural land devoted to oil-producing plants (Caliman 2011), oil palm provides 39% of world’s production of vegetable oil on a much lower proportion of this land than that devoted to soybean (61%), rapeseed (18%) and sunflower (14%). Palm oil also has the lowest production costs of all vegetable oils, 20% lower than soybean.

An exploited agronomic flexibility

Nearly 18 million hectares of land in tropical areas have been planted with oil palm.


Although it has been genetically improved since the 1940s (Cochard et al. 2005), oil palm remains a very hardy plant and is able to adapt to a very wide range of cultivation systems. These systems of cultivation range from family plots of a few hectares (or even less) to agrom- industrial estates covering several tens of thousands of hectares. Oil palm is a very resilient crop adapted to various agronomic contexts: oil yields vary according to the density of plantation and systems for irrigation, fertilization and intercropping. The stem (trunk) of the palm tree plays a vital part in this flexibility, enabling it to accumulate significant organic (carbohydrate) and mineral reserves (Legros et al. 2009). Thanks to such physiological plasticity, oil palms can survive an extended dry season, several years without fertilizer and competition from other oil palms or crops planted in proximity, such as maize, cassava or legumes. Almost 40% of the palm oil produced today comes from small farms. Globally, around 3 million smallholders are involved in the sector. In Indonesia alone it is estimated that 25 million people are now making a living – directly or indirectly – from oil palm cultivation (WWF 2011).

A versatile product

The fatty acid composition of palm oil gives it specific physiochemical properties that explain its successful adoption by processing com- panies in the North. In these countries its consistency at room temperature gives it a natural “melt in the mouth” characteristic, which means it can be used as a substitute for butter in many agri-food processing industries (patisserie, confectionery, savory snacks, ready- made dishes and frozen food). These technical and organoleptic properties can be obtained from oils extracted from temperate oil crops (rapeseed, soybean or sunflower), but such oils have to be artificially hydrogenated, which risks producing trans fatty acids (trans fats), which are legally banned or at least recognized as harmful. Palm oil responds well to the challenge to find alternative forms of fat with little or no trans fatty acids (FFAS 2012), which explains its success in the food industry.

Palm oil can replace most other vegetable oils and has a very wide range of uses in:

1. the agri-food industry (80% of palm oil usage): table oil, frying oil, margarines, fat for bakery products, patisserie and all types of food preparation, etc.

2. oleochemicals (19% of usage): cosmetics, soap production, lubricants and greases, candles, pharmaceutical products, leather, surfactants, agrochemicals, paint and lacquer, electronics, etc.

3. biodiesel (1% of usage).

The fragile coexistence with tropical forests

The biological requirements of oil palm limit its distribution to the wet tropics, where plantations must coexist with some of the planet’s last biodiversity hotspots, namely the Congo Basin, the Amazon and Borneo.

Worldwide distribution of oil palm cultivation.

Worldwide distribution of oil palm cultivation.

Other major oil crops also have to coexist with fragile environments. Indeed, the cultivation of soybean (75% genetically modified), for example, has to overcome significant environmental constraints, particularly in Brazil where the area under cultivation has increased from 1.7 million to 21.7 million hectares within 40 years.

Oil palm and deforestation

The relationship between palm plantations and deforestation is neither direct nor automatic. Concessions are granted by public authorities, often at local level, to forestry companies who extract timber. Degraded forests can become fallow land, savannah or farmed land, depending on what people do. Only a portion of deforested land is converted into palm plantations. Out of 21 million

hectares of primary forest that disappeared in Indonesia between 1990 and 2005, no more than 3 million were developed as palm plantations. However, there are growing signs of a direct link in new frontier areas, such as Borneo, where nearly 30% of the primary forests felled have been planted with oil palm (Carlson et al. 2012). On average new plantations are responsible for 10% of the deforestation that has taken place in Indonesia and Malaysia (FAO 2010). These figures do not take into account the indirect causes of deforestation linked to activities that spring up following the introduction of plantations at the edge of forests; these activities are difficult to estimate but are far from negligible.

Much uncertainty remains over the relative contributions of various forest-exploiting sectors to forest losses. Indeed, Abood et al. (2014) recently compared the magnitude of forest and carbon loss, and forest and carbon stocks remaining within oil palm plantations, logging, fiber plantation (pulp and paper) and coal-mining concessions in Indonesia. The authors found that fiber plantation and logging concessions accounted for the largest forest loss. Although the oil palm industry is often highlighted as a major driver of deforestation, it was ranked third in terms of deforestation and second in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. Crucially, 35% of Indonesia’s remaining forests is located within industrial concessions, the majority of which is found within logging concessions.

New frontiers under scrutiny

The major oil palm plantation programs underway in Africa (Liberia, Angola, Gabon and Cameroon) also pose an increasing threat to forests (WWF 2011). As a result of the growing number of international regulations to prevent the conversion of natural forests, shortage of land, monitoring of major land acquisitions and hopes raised by REDD (the reduction of emissions caused by deforestation and degradation) in major producing countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, the big Asian companies are tempted to diversify their production zones, and they now invest strongly in Africa (Hoyle & Levang 2012). Indonesia anticipates doubling its production between now and 2020, while West Africa and the Congo basin offer a new frontier: 650,000 hectares were at the planning stage in Liberia alone, although these figures are now revised downwards.

A recognized role in poverty eradication

From the beginning, oil palm is always viewed by local people as the best way out of underdevelopment and of gaining a toehold in the modern way of life. In isolated forest areas of Sumatra or Kalimantan in Indonesia, local people dream first and foremost about paved roads, electricity, water supply, mobile phone networks, schools and dispensaries, even international airports. Living in harmony with nature by hunting and gathering forest products, far removed from the stress of the modern commercial world is the dream of the affluent urban westerner and not that of the “noble savage.” When the companies’ door-to- door salesmen turn up, offering a high and regular source of income, salaried jobs and modern infrastructure, they are not forcing anyone’s hand but are meeting a real demand. The terms of exchange may sometimes be unequal, but it should not be forgotten that land is abundant and cheap on the forest margins of the Indonesian archipelago. Loans, labor, selected seeds and agricultural inputs are, however, rare and expensive. If the forest people have any lingering doubts, the local government representatives and their village leaders can easily dispel them. Planting palm trees is a national project, and the few doubters are accused of being behind the times, of holding up progress or of being antisocial. If enough of them resist and if they know how to stay grouped, their lands will be excluded from the deal and treated as enclaves. Part of the land granted to the company will be handed over to transmigrants from Java or Bali, and these settlers will provide the labor that is lacking locally.

Once the deal has been struck the dream may take some time to come true. The work takes longer than expected. Between clearing and the official handing over of plantations years go by, and the cash made from giving up the land is just a distant memory. In the worst case scenario, the vision of a new life of luxury just around the corner leads peasants to neglect preparation of their food crop plots. The early stage of production of the plantations is disappointing, yields are low and do not meet the family’s needs. Often finding themselves in debt, these families have no choice but to sell off their plots of palms at a low price to their better-off neighbors or to migrants.

A few years later, when the palm trees enter into full production, the sellers have nothing left but the clothes they stand in. Their land capital has disappeared and their only option is to seek jobs as laborers at the company in order to survive. For those who know how to wait or have the means to do so the situation is different. Seven years after being planted, the oil palm enters the mature phase of production. Despite the 30% cut in price to repay the loan, the owners benefit from a steady source of income and have the security to allow themselves to contemplate the future with more serenity, put money aside to educate their children or even expand their land holding. When the start of the mature phase of the plantation coincides with high palm oil prices, as in 2008, some planters choose to accelerate the reimbursement of their debt, paying it off in as little as 6–8 years (Feintrenie et al. 2010).

Oil palm is an opportunity for development offered to the local population as a whole but is something only a proportion of them will be able to take advantage of. The same would have applied to any other cash crop or new opportunity such as fish-farming or mining.

Designing smarter production systems

There are several ways in which oil palm plan- tations can be developed without destroying vast stretches of tropical forests in the process. These include agrom-forestry techniques, patchwork developments, landscape planning and ecological intensification.

Schematic representation of oil palm production systems.

Schematic representation of oil palm production systems.


Many researchers, both agronomists and socio- economists, won over by the sustainable nature of agrom-forests, have tried to preempt what appears to be an unavoidable progression sweeping through most tropical parts of the world (Rival & Levang 2014). To improve the economic profitability of the agrom-forests, agronomists are trialing viable associations of several economically attractive species. Such studies are still underway, but promising results have apparently been obtained for associations of oil palms and cocoa plants planted in conjunction with a few lines of fruit trees.

The main problem is the strong shade produced by palm fronds, which does not help in companion planting and makes it necessary to reduce significantly the density of palms. However, even if research manages to develop economically viable associations, the biodiversity of these systems remains very low in comparison to primary forest. There is always the danger that economically profitable systems, even of the agrom-forest type, will induce local people to make more agricultural land out of the adjacent forest.

Patchwork developments

Patchwork developments are in some ways a reflection of change in areas that were formerly mainly agrom-forests. Here, diversity is neither deliberate nor managed. It simply reflects the range of socio-economic situations of the households found within it. Monospecific plantations are juxtaposed with agrom-forests (which are dotted through forest clearings of various ages), plots growing food crops, shrubby fallow land and even islands of primary forest. The countryside is constantly changing as shrubby fallow land becomes a food plot, the latter is then set aside, agrom- forest is replaced by a monospecific plantation and old plantations are invaded by wild species.

The cycle of slash and burn follows the lifecycle of the heads of household. Young people take jobs as laborers or tenant farmers working with older farmers. Once married, they create their own plantations and enjoy the fruit of their investments when they retire. The wild fauna also benefits from this diversity in the landscape. A varied range of niches exists, from intensively cultivated food crops to set-aside land and former fallow land, although the fauna in question mainly comprises rodents, birds and reptiles of all sorts. There is barely enough space for large mammals such as tigers, rhinos, elephants and large primates.

Landscape planning

This model follows the idea of a patchwork effect but is more tightly organized and controlled. Here, the objective is not to preserve the forest as a whole but rather to limit the worst effects of conversion. Following where possible the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) Principles and Criteria, landscape planning aims at preventing those zones recognized as of high conservation value (HCV) or of High Carbon Stock (HCS) from being converted. The same applies to riparian areas, hilltops and very steep slopes. Sacred grounds, cemeteries and places of worship or cultural significance are also preserved. As a result, only part of the countryside is converted into plantations. Great care is taken to connect the different conservation zones. Where necessary, agrom- forest zones serve as buffers between conservation and plantation zones. This model was recently tested in Malaysia and Indonesia by a few companies that are keen to improve their environment-friendly image. There is an underlying economic motive: being awarded certification implies respect of the highest environmental standards, and both shareholders and investors are increasingly concerned about their corporate social responsibility. Unfortunately, there is a range of factors that serve to hinder the spread of this system of ecological planning. First and foremost, implementation requires a degree of technical knowledge that is still rarely available on the ground. It also entails a substantial additional outlay that is by no means made up for by the premiums provided by certification, and the financial and legal incentives are still too low for most companies and smallholders’ cooperatives. The market dominated by emerging countries is more interested in cheap oil than “green” oil and the weak governance in most of the countries where the major companies are active tends not to respect legislation (when this exists at all).

Ecological intensification

Areas already planted with oil palm often fall well short of producing the expected oil yields (3.7 tons per hectare as a global average while selected plant material used in trials produces more than 10 tons per hectare under optimum ecological conditions). It is, therefore, important to optimize the production system of existing palm plantations while keeping the impact on people and the environment to a minimum (Caliman 2011).

Ecological intensification of productivity means first and foremost ensuring all planters – both smallholders and agrom-industrial estates – have access to selected and certified seeds, so more people can benefit from the latest genetic breakthroughs made by research. The adoption of improved seeds adds value at all stages of oil production and primary processing. Investing US$1 in an oil palm seed originating from the best hybrids will provide an average income of US$1300 by the end of its 20 years of exploitation.

Improved planting material provides the planter with higher yields in terms of bunches and optimizes labor (through easier harvesting of shorter palms). It helps the factory owner by offering better extraction rates and the refiner by increasing olein content. By providing better resistance to disease and making it possible to use the same land for several generations, genetic selection and the availability of selected hybrid seeds help reduce pressure on land, particularly since yields also rise. Genetic progress for the oil palm has beenmeasured at 1–1.5% per year (similar to maize) which makes a significant contribution to ecological intensification.

Impact of genetic improvement and best management practices on palm oil yields.

Impact of genetic improvement and best management practices on palm oil yields.

However, this alone is not enough to meet increased needs for vegetable oil (increasing 3–4% per year) and for palm oil in particular (increasing 5–6%). Best agricultural practices should also be adopted to contribute to this intensification, which is designed to meet global demand without expanding the area under cultivation.

Ecological intensification also relies on the implementation of well-planned fertilizer application, both for economic reasons (fertilizers account for over 60% of the running costs of a palm plantation) and out of respect for people and the environment. Fertilizers made from petrochemical products or non- renewable mineral sources have a limited future. The challenge is therefore to optimize the use of fertilizers (mineral and organic) to ensure they provide maximum benefit to the plant through staggered and well-planned applications that avoid any surplus leaching into ground or surface water. These needs are assessed from mineral analysis of soil and leaf samples taken in the plantations. Analysis provides thresholds for fertilizer use depending on climate, plant physiology, soil type and the genetic origin and age of plantation. This type of science-based management is not exactly a new concept. It has developed in recent years with the growing awareness of the need to combine high yields with environmental protection.

Major headway is being made in composting organic waste and recycling palm oil mill effluents. Almost all the biomass and by- products generated in plantations and oil mills can be recycled and used as organic fertilizers. This includes the pruned fronds as well as empty bunches and liquid effluents from mills. This practice is now integrated into fertilization management plans, mainly in industrial plantations; inputs from inorganic fertilizer can be cut by at least 15%. Some of the recycled products improve not only fertility but also the texture of the soil and both under- and above-ground biodiversity (Carron et al. 2015). The combination of inorganic and organic fertilizer (derived from recycling or composting) is managed differently from plantation to plantation, according to the specific needs of the plot of land, as the application of organic fertilizer alone is not always sufficient to maintain soil fertility.

Lagoons for the decanting of liquid effluents produce methane – a gas with a strong greenhouse effect – and are now used to produce biogas around oil extraction plants. This is a way of harnessing the considerable energy potential of organic palm oil by- products (12 m3 of methane per ton of fruits extracted, 15 m3 of methane per m3 of liquid effluents). Each 1 m3 of biogas generated saves the equivalent of 0.56 liters of diesel. This practice is spreading rapidly in a large number of plantations, and new installations are now equipped at the time of construction for biodigestion of effluents and biogas capture. The transportation of this excess energy remains problematic because plantations and oil mills are often geographically very isolated from the distribution networks. Ironically, some plantations have to settle for burning their surplus biogas in flares. In Indonesia alone, at the level of 2012 palm oil production, the biodigestion of palm oil mill effluents can produce approx. 3.3 million MWh per year. This can reduce the use of diesel oil by 1.3 million kiloliter per year, which is around 4% of the annual diesel import volume, and thus can save US$1–1.3 billion of foreign exchange reserves per annum.

The use of pesticides in oil palm cultivation is restricted to limited applications of herbicides in young plantations to control the growth of cover plants and to create paths for harvesting. In some areas, particularly in Southeast Asia, use of rat poison is common, although this is increasingly being replaced by the introduction of barn owls (Tyto alba), their natural predators.

The ecological intensification of oil palm cultivation comes up against the biological constraints of the plant, which make production difficult to mechanize. Palm oil has to be extracted promptly from the fruit to avoid losing its physical and chemical properties. This requires an efficient harvesting network, maintained infrastructure and reliable organization of the harvesting areas.

The transfer of innovation to smallholders remains one of the main challenges facing ecological intensification. If these planters can be organized into national projects or public and private sector associations, the transfer of innovation (selected seeds and best agricultural practices) is relatively easy and swift; the organizational structure offers the necessary credit facilities and technical and financial support. Independent planters who are not grouped together in cooperatives remain harder to reach, and therefore convince, in spite of the enormous gains in yield to be achieved.

Choosing a model for development

Smallholders or agrom-industries?

The choice of development model is therefore not a technical decision but a societal choice. There is no doubt that agrom-industries are often more efficient than family farming in terms of fruit and oil yield. Transaction costs are lower, and State involvement may be limited to granting easy terms to investors. In addition, in terms of duties and taxation, monitoring compliance with environmental rules (such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certification or pollution control) or social standards (workers’ rights), it is always easier to deal with a small number of big estates than thousands of unorganized or poorly organized smallholders. But, in terms of social justice, job creation and reduction of poverty, there is also no doubt that family farming has proved itself.

The association of agrom-industrial estates and smallholders, following the model that has contributed to the success of the oil palm in Southeast Asia, would be beneficial in economic, social and environmental terms. Economically speaking, the involvement of a large number of smallholders creates more jobs, both direct and indirect, and triggers an economic snowball effect that has a major impact on the reduction of rural poverty. The additional cost of involving smallholders (mainly transaction costs) is partly made up for by requiring smallholders to pay the cost of development through credit. On the social level, shared goals and development aid, rather than competition and the exclusion of smallholders, will boost social cohesion. Finally, on the environmental level, the development of plantations on land that has already been cleared by smallholders near villages and roads, means the equivalent area of primary forest is spared (Hoyle & Levang 2012).

Certifying sustainability

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) initiative

When it was launched in 2004, RSPO was a business-to-business initiative bringing together about 10 members, both private actors in the industry (such as Unilever) and NGOs (such as WWF). It was designed as an international, multi-stakeholder platform to certify and promote sustainable palm oil. In November 2005, eight principles and 39 criteria for certification were approved, leading to certification of the first plantations in 2008. The first batch of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) was sold at the end of 2008.

RSPO Principles and Criteria.

RSPO Principles and Criteria.

Today, the Roundtable has reached 1800 members, divided into seven categories: growers, processors and traders, manufacturers, banks and investors, retailers, environ- mental/nature conservation NGOs and social/developmental NGOs. The Roundtable has various working groups through which it carries out, diversifies and enhances its activities. National or regional interpretation groups are responsible for integrating the certification principles and criteria into national legislation. There is still some way to go before they are adapted to the specific constraints of family farmers; the cost of certification and corrective action, estimated at US$20–40 per hectare is often prohibitive for smallholders who are barely, if at all, organized into cooperative arrangements (WWF 2012a). Today, 3.1 million hectares of plantations are RSPO certified, that is about 18% of the global surface area planted (as compared to 106,000 hectares in 2008) and 11.2 million tons of certified sustainable palm oil as were produced in 2013 (620,000 tons in 2008).

Like a large number of multi-stakeholders initiatives devoted to the promotion and standardization of a sustainable product (Forest Stewardship Council, Marine Stewardship Council, Round Table on Responsible Soybean, BonSucro), the RSPO receives considerable criticism. It is based on the voluntary acceptance, by consensus of all members, of its principles and criteria and is therefore considered not rigorous enough and lacking in power (Laurance et al. 2010). The fact that RSPO certification is unable to protect the rights of indigenous people in terms of land rights, compensation for land annexation and respect for customary law has also been highlighted. As happened in the case of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for timber, the RSPO principles and criteria, which were designed to be consensual and universal, have become very difficult to apply and therefore of limited use in complex local contexts, such as in Indonesia, where land ownership conflicts are not settled by the Central Government but at the district level. This means that on one side we have a set of directives based on the logical approach of the North and on the other we have a local authority which may have little awareness of questions of sustainability, feels the pressure of development and is therefore in a precarious position. Negotiations are necessarily un- balanced, and the process of certification does not succeed in protecting the rights of indigenous people. This puts the credibility of the whole process of certification at stake and clearly raises question about the role of governments (McCarthy 2012). Ruysschaert and Salles (2014) recently questioned how effective RSPO is in attaining its claimed conservation goals, especially regarding orangutans. Their study described five short- comings explaining the poor outcomes regarding the protection of the forest area, and especially the orangutan habitat: financial compensation too small, too much room for interpretation in the guidance document, postponement on contentious issues, non- integration of RSPO within the socio-politico- legal Indonesian context and the lack of effective external control system. As these shortcomings complement each other, the authors found that effectiveness of the RSPO scheme was dramatically reduced for biodiversity conservation and that it was negligible for species such as Sumatran orangutan, which needs large areas of forested habitat.

Strengths and weaknesses of a voluntary international standard

Its detractors criticize the RSPO for the lack of participation by governments from the moment the Roundtable was set up. Ironically, it is the public authorities in each country that have the task of translating the RSPO Principles and Criteria into legislation in conformity with their respective constitutions. They are also responsible for applying these laws effectively in the field and of enforcing sanctions against offenders. It is all well and good to draft a highway code, but it is not worth the paper it is written on if there are no incorruptible policemen at the side of the road, responsible for ensuring that it is respected!

Finally, the market share of certified crops remains limited even if, as in the case of oil palm, it is growing rapidly. To date no more than 2.5% of world cane sugar is BonSucro certified, as compared to 16% of palm oil sold under the CSPO (Certified Sustainable Palm Oil) label. In the case of palm oil, the paradox lies in the fact that many processors and distributors in the North only committed themselves to using 100% CSPO certified oil by 2015, when they could have been doing it long before this virtual deadline because about half (48%) of the certified oil available on the market is not being bought up. The goodwill expressed by consumers is taking its time to bring about change in the supply chain of processors and distributors in the North.

There is no denying that the supply network is extremely complex. The first positive impact of certification has been to map and identify the networks of suppliers and intermediaries. There are many lessons to be learned from the recent work carried out by Nestlé and The Forest Trust in this area. In 2010, a campaign by Greenpeace which was very persuasive and visually violent compared a Kit-Kat chocolate bar with the bloody fingers of an orangutan, accusing Nestlé of destroying tropical forests and their biodiversity. Nestlé then entered into a partnership with a specialized NGO, The Forest Trust, which was to help it develop a completely sustainable supply chain. The partnership led to guidelines for sustainability (Responsible Sourcing Guidelines), which are specific to palm oil and establish the principle of traceability back to the plantation. A considerable amount of work has been done to map suppliers and intermediaries. The strategy is based on assessing the performance of suppliers in order to exclude those who participate in deforestation, and on providing technical support to suppliers who wish to implement the sustainability guidelines. In February 2011, in collaboration with The Forest Trust, the Indonesian group Golden AgriResources, one of the main Nestlé suppliers and a target of Greenpeace, set up a forest conservation program designed to protect high conservation value forests and peat bogs.

In addition, some RSPO members make much of the confusion between the concept of affiliation, which is a form of voluntary adherence to the general principles of the Roundtable, and certification, which follows from a process that is standardized and validated by an independent certifying body and alone confers the right to use the registered trademark RSPO.

RSPO constantly revises its Principles and Criteria, which had become necessary to adapt to the specific constraints of smallholders. It became pressing to do more to involve stakeholders who were still under-represented, such as governments, importers and processors from the South (China, India, Pakistan), smallholders, universities and national and international research centers. An improved system of certification should also ensure that governments are given an important role. Because, when all is said and done, it is they who are in charge of legislating and applying the laws that convey the criteria of sustainability in each country (forest moratoria, compulsory standards, land concessions and community rights).

The recent emergence of national standards (Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil and Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil) is a sign of the successful appropriation of the idea of certification but also of the need to move on to compulsory national rules backed by an enforceable legal system instead of voluntary international ones.

The request for a credible certification system comes also from major investors such as the World Bank (Teoh 2010; WWF 2012b) or major banking groups, which are increasingly aware of the importance of ethical investments.

Beyond voluntary certification

Going further on the sustainability track

The Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) aims to demonstrate innovation in sustainable palm oil production through developing new models and paradigms for best practices in the sector. The POIG currently consists of international NGOs along with several palm oil producing companies recognized as innovative leaders in socio-environmental issues. Current members include Agropalma, Daabon Organic, Forest Peoples Programme, GAR Agribusiness and Food, Greenpeace, New Britain Palm Oil Limited, Rainforest Action network and WWF. The group was initiated after the 2013 review of the RSPO Principles and Criteria, which POIG members believed could have been more innovative, especially on the issues of deforestation, carbon stocks, biodiversity and social relations. All of the POIG members are committed to improving the RSPO Principles and Criteria.

The Manifesto

Launched in July 2014, The Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto is a commitment to achieve common objectives held by a group of growers, traders, processors and end-users who are key stakeholders in the palm oil industry, to ensure sustainability in the entire chain from cultivation to consumption. Signatories to the Manifesto are among the largest players in the palm oil industry, which include Asian Agri, IOI Corporation Berhad, Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad, Musim Mas Group, and Sime Darby Plantation, who together produce about 9% of the world’s palm oil. Other signatories include global palm oil trader Apical and global agribusiness group Cargill. The Manifesto aims to build upon the signatories’ existing sustainability commitments to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s principles and criteria with three specific objectives:

1. To build traceable and transparent supply chains;

2. To accelerate the journey to no deforestation through the conservation of high carbon stock forests and the protection of peat areas regardless of depth; and

3. To increase the focus on driving beneficial economic change and to ensure a positive social impact on people and communities.

A key commitment in the Manifesto is the funding of a study to define further what constitutes High Carbon Stock (HCS) forests, and to establish HCS thresholds that take into account environmental, socio-economic and political factors, as well as other practical considerations in developing and emerging economies where oil palm is cultivated. The study is expected to take 12 months.

The signatories are firmly committed to, and are fully supportive of the RSPO and its Principles and Criteria. Signatories will con- tinue to ensure that the palm oil produced, traded, processed and consumed are in line with RSPO standards. The RSPO is currently the only sustainability standard available in the global edible oil industry, making palm oil the only edible oil produced on a large scale that adheres to stringent social and environ- mental standards.

On the research agenda

Sayer et al. (2012) smartly defined the four oil palm truths: 1) the demand for palm oil will continue to increase in response to a growing and increasingly affluent global population; 2) oil palm is one of the most profitable land uses in the humid tropics; 3) oil palm plantations store more carbon than alternative agricultural land uses; 4) native biodiversity within oil palm plantations is far lower than the natural forests they often replace.

These four simple truths address multiple issues for researchers who are also in charge of providing a sound scientific basis for the legal certification schemes of sustainability that are under way. The public and the oil palm sector are both waiting for immediate, applicable, robust and credible results, and this creates unique opportunities for multidisciplinary and collaborative research initiatives. Over the last decade, several large-scale collaborative projects linking plantation companies, NGOs and academic institutions have finally got off the ground and started work on decoding the biological, agrom-ecological and social bases of sustainability in oil palm cultivation.

The High Carbon Stock (HCS) Study of the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto

This is a project linking Australia’s Common- wealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and the group of growers, traders, end users and key stakeholders in the palm oil industry committed to the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto. The study aims clearly to define what constitutes HCS forest, and establish HCS thresholds that take into account not only environmental concerns but also socio- economic and political factors in developing and emerging economies. The study aims to provide: 1) a definition of HCS forests that is based on potential greenhouse gas emissions from biomass and soils, as well as a practical method for identifying and delineating HCS forests on the ground; 2) suggested threshold values for greenhouse gas emissions from HCS forests, which take account of the regional socio-economic context in SE Asian and African countries where new oil palm developments are planned and 3) Guidance on how to accommodate the rights and livelihoods of local communities and indigenous peoples when implementing a future HCS approach to land use planning.

SENSOR (Socially and Environmentally Sustainable Oil Palm Research)

This project, coordinated in Southeast Asia by the Royal Society of London is aimed at developing a multidisciplinary approach to the validation and development of RSPO principles and criteria. The project brings together the European universities of York, Wageningen, Leeds, Lancaster and Swansea and tackles five major topics: water and soil, air quality and greenhouse gas, biodiversity, zones of high conservation value, and participatory rights and procedures and standard of living. Its main objectives are to build up confidence in CSPO palm oil amongst users, investors and the general public, guarantee that the efforts and investments put into sustainable practices are profitable and that these practices are recognized in the market and, finally, to protect the environment and society in the long term through rigorous evaluation and the development of practices capable of delivering proven results.

SAFE (Stability of Altered Forest Environ- ment)

This project is being carried out on the island of Borneo over a period of 10 years (2010–2020), by the Royal Society of London and the Sime Darby Foundation, with a budget of €7.3 million. This is an ecological research project designed to quantify the impact of establishing oil palm plantations on the biodiversity of adjacent forests. It aims to identify situations that minimize impact on biodiversity and optimize ecosystem services. Research programs look at the diversity of flora and fauna, water and soil, the carbon cycle, nutrients and the microclimate in forest blocks of 1, 10 and 100 hectares, set aside within an oil palm plantation. The study zones are set up in new plantations, productive plantations, zones previously deforested and plots of primary forest.

BEFTA (Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function in Tropical Agriculture) Project

This aims at quantifying the effect of habitat complexity within oil palm plantations on biodiversity and experimentally test the role of this biodiversity in ecosystem functioning and productivity. Working in Indonesia with the oil palm industry (Sinar Mas Agrom Resources and Technology Corporation Research Institute – SMARTRI) and an international team of collaborative researchers led by the University of Cambridge, UK, the BEFTA project is experimentally manipulating the habitat complexity of plantations to test its effect on a wide range of taxa and ecosystem processes. Through establishing the role of biodiversity within tropical agrom-ecosystems, the project will develop improved oil palm management and industry-compatible biodiversity surveys and guides.

PalmiNet network

France’s CIRAD (Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement) and INRA (National Institute for Agronomic Research), CENIPALMA (Corporación Centro de Investigación en Palma de Aceite in Colombia), PT Smart (an Indonesian plantation company) and NBPOL (New Britain Palm Oil Ltd, plantation company, Papua New Guinea) set up this network in order to develop shared indicators on the social and environmental impact of the oil palm crop. The idea is to promote the use of indicators by actors in the sector, share research efforts and feedback, facilitate the development of tools and indicators, encourage new forms of collaboration and multidisciplinary research and disseminate results among a wide audience of potential users.

Sustainable Palm Oil Production (SPOP)

At the interface between agronomy and social sciences, this project, led by CIRAD and supported by the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche, aims to verify the sustainability of current smallholder-based systems or to propose new sustainable systems. It involves actors in the process through participatory methods such as multi-agent modeling.

Conclusions and research avenues

Improving sustainability requires multi- disciplinary and collaborative research

Large scale projects based on public/private partnerships are emerging or are presently underway, although some of them are facing funding problems to initiate or continue their activities. In order to provide robust, trustworthy and shared results, such projects need the successful integration of a large and diverse partnership and – above all – the involvement in the (very) long term of all contributors. Indeed, this is not an easy task; huge study areas are needed, and research conclusions and resulting statements are not immediate, as academic results need some time before being translated into reliable indicators and thresholds. This is far from comfortable lab research.
As an example, all stakeholders now agree on the need for establishing buffer zones between protected areas and plantations. This being said, research is crucially needed to determine the size and shape of such zones and developers are waiting for clear answers: inside or outside the plantation area? One single zone or a stepping stones design? Connecting protected zones with biodiversity corridors or not? Which percentage of the planted area to be protected: 10%, 20% or 40% as in Amazonia? The same applies for questions arising from the exploitation of peat soils, the controlled use of pesticides or the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

Public awareness has pushed new approaches and new actors into the sector

Even if they were rarely science-based, quite caricatural and sometimes misleading, cam- paigns by NGOs played an important role in pushing all branches of the oil palm sector towards improved sustainability. RSPO is most probably only the tip of the iceberg, as most estate companies are now addressing environmental and sustainability issues as they have embarked towards national and/or international certification. Most of the major plantation companies now publish a yearly sustainability report and have created their own sustainability department or task force. Interestingly, “revolving chairs” are at work as most of such departments are led by former environmental NGO executives. Of course, the risk of green-washing still exists (it is ironically branded “Talk and Log”), even if the sector is now permanently under scrutiny from NGOs and public agencies and – increasingly – from governments. A growing number of companies and their distributors cannot afford any more severe mistakes in their sourcing, traceability or social responsibility policies. NGOs and impact assessment bodies are now part of multidisciplinary research as they bring in new competencies and extended field-based expertise on both social and environmental areas. Such actors also bring in a recognized expertise in using mass media and especially the powerful, web-based social media.

Research results are more published and recognized

The “publish or perish” rule applies also to oil palm researchers. Sustainability issues cannot be solved easily without the help of basic science. As an example, soil science now includes metagenomics to describe and monitor life under and above ground. Remote sensing and precision agriculture are needed either to anticipate and mitigate climate changes such as El Niño, to map precisely planted and protected areas or to detect outbreaks of pests and diseases. Breeding strategies are now routinely integrating molecular markers (Rival et al. 2010) and genomics data derived from the recent sequencing of the oil palm genome (Singh et al. 2013). Scientific literature on oil palm research has boomed, reaching almost 800 journal articles (more than 7000 citations) in 2013.


Changes in the number of published articles referring to oil palm (Web of Science).

There is a need for education and capacity building on sustainability

Before or during their professional life, plantation managers, cooperative leaders, researchers and planners must share the same corpus of basic knowledge about sustainability. A very recent initiative linking CIRAD with Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and Wild Asia, a specialized NGO with expertise in training Lead Auditors for RSPO, has also launched a course on Auditing Certification Schemes on Sustainability hosted in Malaysia by the Institute of Agricultural and Food Policy Studies. This is just a start; each company is still training its own executives following its own principles, and there is still huge room for improvement in sharing knowledge and methodology.

Scientists must be part of the public debate

Since developments such as the controversy in Europe over genetically modified crops, we scientists have become aware of the sensitivity of politicians and decision makers to public opinion, which more often retreats to entrenched positions. Some branches of science can be denied public funding once they have been publicly categorized as “sensitive.” Paradoxically, this has the opposite effect to that sought by early detractors. Indeed, by depriving a whole field of research of public funding the door is left open to scientific research supported exclusively by private money without any counterweight and therefore highly questionable. The public debate about the oil palm like in any other issue is generally triggered by the lack of sharing of scientific evidence obtained without conflict of interest by independent research teams. Thus scientist must not hesitate to show not only doubts and concerns but also promising research and development results and encouraging changes in the sector.


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