Certified palm oil, the way to sustainability

Palm oil has many benefits and it is an extremely versatile vegetable oil


THESE days, the mention of palm oil might make any environmentalist or conservationist cringe (if not frown).

The negativities towards one of the most “powerful” commodities in the world intensified especially after a 2018 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) stated that palm oil is damaging global biodiversity.

According to the report, wildlife including orangutans, gibbons and tigers are among the 193 species on the IUCN Red List (those facing risk of extinction) which have been affected by deforestation due to palm oil plantations.

“Palm oil impacts on biodiversity currently converge in Malaysia and Indonesia, but could spill over to tropical Africa and the US as production expands to meet demand,” the report stated.

Prior to the publication of the report, there were already various campaigns that sought to discredit the benefits and nutritional values of palm oil, which made things a little tricky for countries that are forerunners in the trade including Malaysia.

Busting the Myth

Boycotting palm oil products would do more harm than good. Compared to other vegetable oils such as soybean, rapeseed and sunflower, palm oil is the highest yielding vegetable oil. It requires less land to produce the same volume as other edible oils.

Therefore, banning palm oil and substituting it with other crops may result in larger deforestations to plant these crops, as they require more land.

“Palm oil is decimating South-East Asia’s rich diversity of species as it eats into swathes of tropical forest,” said Erik Meijaard, the report lead author and IUCN’s oil palm task force chairperson.

“But if it is replaced by much larger areas of rapeseed, soy or sunflower fields, different natural ecosystems and species may suffer.”

To put a stop to the destruction, Meijaard said it is important to work towards deforestation-free palm oil.

He said all attempts to minimise the use of palm oil are informed by solid scientific understanding of the consequences.

Among the biggest consumers of palm oil are India, China and Indonesia — countries that also produce 35% of the world’s vegetable oils.

Palm oil is certainly essential to Malaysia’s wellbeing, economically. According to Malaysia’s Department of Statistics, oil palm was the major contributor to the country’s GDP in the agriculture sector in 2018, 37.9%.

The rest include other crops (25.1%), livestock (14.9%), fishing (12.5%), forestry and logging (6.9%) and rubber (2.8%).

“When you consider the disastrous impacts of palm oil on biodiversity from a global perspective, there are no simple solutions,” IUCN ED Inger Andersen said in a press release.

As such, it is pertinent for producing countries to galvanise concerted action to make palm oil production more sustainable.

That means all parties whether they are governments, producers or those from the supply chain must honour their sustainability commitments.

Certified Palm Oil

One of the efforts to manage deforestation caused by palm oil is certifying palm oil, though the approach is relatively new and holds the potential for improving sustainability.

To meet the growing concerns about the impact of palm oil on the environment, the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was introduced in 2004.

Companies are encouraged to buy and use RSPO-certified palm oil and be transparent in their use and sourcing of palm oil, which would ensure that buyers are familiar with who they purchase it from and where it is produced.

Palm oil growers will be evaluated for a five-year certification. If they are certified, they will be annually assessed to ensure constant compliance.

A few large consumer goods firms have made public commitments to sourcing sustainable palm oil such as Unilever (M) Holdings Sdn Bhd and Colgate-Palmolive (M) Sdn Bhd.

To help consumers find companies that are RSPO-certified, they have made it available via their website here — https://rspo.org/certification/search-for-certified-growers.

Benefits of Palm Oil

Palm oil has many benefits and it is an extremely versatile vegetable oil.

From snacks to cosmetics, most of the products that are available in supermarkets contain palm oil. Palm oil is also used to create biofuel.

At room temperature, it is semi-solid so it can keep spreads spreadable.

Since it is also resistant to oxidation, it gives products longer shelf life and it is both odourless and colourless.

In the wake of the global ‘attack’ on the commodity, it would be a good time for Malaysians to support the use of palm oil-based products – Pic by Muhd Amin Naharul

Sustainable Cooking Oil

Cooking oil is one of the products that are produced from palm oil, but not all of them are sustainable.

Sime Darby Oils, a wholly owned subsidiary of Sime Darby Plantation Bhd, is among the few that bears the RSPO certification, particularly via its brand Alif.

Sime Darby Oils MD Mohd Haris Mohd Arshad said the “sustainable promise” transcends across the company’s entire value chain.

“With this, we can uphold our commitment in ensuring that Alif cooking oil is produced according to the highest standard of palm oil filtering, processing, refining, and bottling,” he said.

This method is to ensure only high quality-cooking oil is made available not only in supermarkets but also in their consumers’ kitchens.

“Alif cooking oil certification of RSPO assures consumers that Alif cooking oil is produced without causing any damage to our environment and biodiversity. We are committed to producing Alif cooking oil and all our products through absolute transparency,” Mohd Haris added.

He said Alif is also naturally rich in Vitamin E and is also a cholesterol and trans-fat free product which can strengthen the heart against stroke and cardiovascular diseases and reduce cholesterol levels.

The cooking oil is also good for repeated deep-frying up to three times because it has a higher resistance to oxidation during frying at high temperature.

The versatility allows consumers to use it for baking, deep-frying or stir-frying that are common in many Malaysian delicacies.

In the wake of the global “attack” on the commodity, it would also be a good time for Malaysians to support the use of palm oil-based products and play an important role in the preservation of the natural resources.