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Dutch pledge boosts campaign for sustainable palm oil ahead of GA7

By David Hewitt - 10 Nov 2010 17:33:0 GMT
Dutch pledge boosts campaign for sustainable palm oil ahead of GA7

Delegates arriving in Indonesia for the 7th General Assembly (GA7) of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) this week will do so boosted by the news that the Netherlands has announced its intention to become the first nation to use only sustainably-sourced palm oil.

With the GA7 proceedings set to kick off in Jakarta on Thursday (November 11th), the Dutch Task Force on Sustainable Palm Oil has presented its manifesto, which binds retailers and processing firms to make the switch by 2015 at the latest, to the Dutch Minister for Agriculture and Foreign Trade, Henk Bleker.

Welcoming the development, the minister noted that the effects of such a switch to sustainability will be felt far beyond South-East Asia.

"We will all benefit from sustainable palm oil, so this is good news for palm oil producers, for palm oil traders, and for Dutch consumers as well," he said.

This pledge has been made on the back of increasing scrutiny of the use of palm oil by both environmental groups and consumers themselves. At present, it is estimated that around half of all the packaged food products sold across Europe contain palm oil - often labelled as 'vegetable oil - with a majority of this coming from Malaysia and Indonesia.

Convenience and low prices, however, come at a cost. Unsustainable palm oil farming practices are blamed for widespread deforestation across these parts of South-East Asia, with this threatening the survival of species such as the orang-utan, the Sumatran tiger, elephant and rhino, while also serving to displace local people and contribute to climate change.  

Notably, this latest move, which represents the first time a country rather than a company has made such a commitment, is far from a token gesture. The Netherlands is presently Europe's single-largest importer of palm oil, acquiring around 4 per cent of global output. Moreover, some 75 per cent of Dutch palm oil imports are then processed and re-exported across the rest of the continent, reaching consumers' baskets as a key ingredient of everything from bread to shampoo.

The Dutch initiative caps off a good year for supporters of calls for more-sustainable palm oil. Within the past 12 months alone, the global supply of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) has grown from just over 1 million tonnes a year to 3 million, equivalent to around 7 per cent of the total.

Furthermore, the past year has also seen pressure exerted by NGOs and consumer groups prompt multinational giants such as Unilever and Nestle pressured into rethinking their palm oil purchasing policies, with this set to impact upon the supply side of the business over the coming years and months.

However, despite the global nature of trade meaning that the results of these latest developments in both Indonesia and the Netherlands will be seen on supermarket shelves in numerous other countries, delegates at the GA7 are to be informed that there is still much to be done.

Speaking to the Earth Times, Adam Harrison, food and agriculture policy officer at WWF Scotland explained that, though progress within the RSPO over the past year has been "impressive", other RSPO members still need to follow the example set by the Netherlands.

"The next challenge is to show progress on increasing demand for sustainable palm oil in the emerging Asian markets," he said.

"However we also face the challenge of making sure that all the membership take action.  Attempts to step backwards on previous decisions taken by the membership need to be vigorously resisted to show the rest of the world that the RSPO is the way forward," he added.

Indeed, it looks certain that the fight for sustainable palm oil will be won in the East rather than the West. The RSPO itself acknowledges that China, India and Pakistan now represent by far the biggest markets for Indonesian palm oil, with the European market accounting for just 10 per cent at most. The biggest hope for environmentalists could well be that such Asian markets also come under economic pressure to only make and export eco-friendly products.

As RSPO executive board member Derom Bangun remarked to the Jakarta Post this week: "Even consumer products from China and India may eventually find it extremely difficult to enter developed countries if their products contain uncertified palm oil."

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