Palm oil between ecological and social responsibility

Anyone who reads the bioenergy blog regularly will know that I am very critical of the very negative tone of the current biofuels debate in Germany. If we are informed about biofuels in the high-circulation daily media, then often in connection with rainforest deforestation, Hunger and missing CO2 reduction values ​​(ILUC). Biodiesel from palm oil is the main criticism of the problem of rainforest deforestation. How is the sustainability of biodiesel from Malaysia and Indonesia, the main exporting countries, and how strongly is the perception influenced by solid lobbying by NGOs and fossil fuel manufacturers? The Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) organized a seminar in Berlin on the topic of sustainability of palm oil. In order to get an impression of this highly emotional and very sensitive topic myself, I visited the biofuel event and wrote this article.

Environmentalists protest against the use of palm oil
Environmentalists are protesting about environmental risks associated with palm oil use.

Between supporters and opponents of biofuels made from palm oil

"Palm oil - experiences, challenges, perspectives" was the neutral title of the palm oil seminar, which took place on March 1st MPOC was organized.

Environmentalists have gathered in front of the hotel where the palm oil seminar was held to protest against the use of palm oil. To put it more politely and cautiously, environmentalists have pointed out the risks of using palm oil.

I went to the event of the palm oil industry in Malaysia myself with the knowledge that Malaysia earns at least 20 billion euros per year from the processing and sale of palm oil and thus benefits greatly from the cultivation of the oil crop. In the end, however, I was pleasantly surprised by the MPOC's responsible approach.

It's hard to say whether I was taken in by the good lobbying of the palm oil industry, but I see the industry with a much less concerned look than before the event about palm oil from Malaysia.

MPOC seminar in Berlin on palm oil from Malaysia
Supporters and opponents of palm oil use in Berlin

With 20 billion euros, palm oil is one of the most important sources of income in Malaysia

Ambassador Malaysia in Germany, HE Ibrahim Abdullah, briefly outlined the importance of palm oil for his country.

Palm oil has had a decisive influence on the rapid development of Malaysia in the past 50 years and has made a great contribution both in terms of energy supply and in the creation of jobs. Palm oil is one of the most valuable commodities in the almost 30 million country in Southeast Asia and currently secures around 1 million jobs.

Over the past decades, palm oil has experienced a real boom in Malaysia - with all the advantages and disadvantages.

Annual trade between Germany and Malaysia is currently around 10 billion euros, with Germany being the 9th most important export country for Malaysia worldwide and the most important within the EU.

Germany is also one of the main importers of Malaysian palm oil, whereby only palm oil that is certified as sustainable is used for energy use in Germany and the sustainability guidelines are observed. Overall, only a small portion (about 1 percent) of the palm oil produced in Malaysia is used for the production of biodiesel, and palm oil products such as margarine and shampoo as well as other food and cosmetic articles dominate.

The ambassador also speaks of the fact that sustainability has become a very important aspect in the management of palm oil plantations and that cultivation has improved considerably in the past 10 years.

Palm oil: cheaper and more space-efficient than rapeseed oil and soybean oil

Dr. MPOC's Kalyana Sundram discussed other special features of palm oil.

According to this, 31 percent of global vegetable oil production currently comes from palm oil, which corresponds to 46 million tpy. The consumption, or the demand, for vegetable oils and fats is currently somewhat larger than global production.

The main exporters of vegetable oils are Indonesia, Malaysia, Argentina and Brazil.

A big advantage of oil production with oil palms is that the oil yield per hectare is significantly higher than with all other oil plants. This also means that the largest amount of vegetable oil can be produced on the smallest arable land and thus the best area efficiency is achieved. Most of the arable land worldwide is used for the cultivation of soybeans, then for rapeseed and sunflower and only in fourth place for palm oil.

The oil yield from palm oil is between 4 - 6 tons of vegetable oil per hectare per year. The yield of rapeseed oil is around 1.5 - 2.5 tpy. This yield advantage makes the oil palm very interesting not only from an economic but also from an ecological point of view. The ecological advantage of area efficiency only comes into play, of course, if no ecologically valuable areas (rainforests) are broken down to cultivate the oil palm.

Wienke von Schenck from the Agrarmarkt Informationsgesellschaft (AIM) added in her presentation that palm oil with a share of 40 - 45 percent is the dominant vegetable oil among German imports. Germany imports the palm oil through the port in Rotterdam, primarily from Malaysia and Indonesia. The 4 most important vegetable oils in German refineries are:

  1. rapeseed oil
  2. Palm oil
  3. soybean oil
  4. Sunflower oil

A big advantage of palm oil is that it is still comparatively low in price. Accordingly, one tonne of palm oil currently costs between 1 and 700 euros, which makes palm oil the cheapest vegetable oil in Europe. For the use of 900 ton of rapeseed oil or soybean oil, 1 - 900 euros currently have to be spent. Ms. Schenck points out, however, that the excellence of palm oil over rapeseed oil has decreased somewhat in recent months.

Malaysia has taken comprehensive measures to make palm oil sustainable

As one of the most important palm oil producing countries, Malaysia naturally has a strong interest in long-term partnerships with the importing countries. Accordingly, Malaysia is also interested in adapting to the requirements of international customers. If the sustainability of palm oil is an important criterion for the sale of Malaysian palm oil to Europe, then Malaysia will adapt to this customer request.

But also out of national pride, Malaysia, which is one of the 10 most biodiverse countries in the world, has an interest in protecting its valuable rainforests. None of the very diplomatic representatives of Malaysia have put it so charmingly, but the Malays do not need Europeans to be aware of their own natural resources and their value. In Germany, we don't need the advice of Malaysia's residents to understand how valuable our own forests are!

Viewed from a distance, we in Europe often only perceive the sharply pointed images and texts of the NGOs (Greenpeace, Rettet den Regenwald), when we look at them we all too quickly forget that the Malays, of course, care about their own country and that they care about it The palm oil industry's sustainability problem was aware of it much earlier than we in Europe. But just like in Europe, grievances in Malaysia do not change with a snap of the finger, but take time to develop and implement measures.

Malaysia, together with the WWF, developed strategies to improve the sustainability of the country's most important economic asset well before the public outcry about sustainable palm oil in Europe. The country is a founding member of the Round Table of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which started in 2004, long before REDcert or ISCC, to set up a system for sustainability certification for palm oil.

Kalyana Sundram of the MPOC, for example, assured that no other areas, and therefore no rainforest, are currently used for the cultivation of oil palms. In Malaysia, the total area under cultivation is currently 5 million hectares (250 million hectares of arable land worldwide).

In Malaysia there is a statutory upper limit ("cap") for the land area that can be used for agriculture and forestry. It must be added, however, that Malaysia is taking a pioneering role in the region with this limiting measure and that other countries will hopefully follow suit in the future.

Germany and Malaysia are roughly the same size, whereby Germany, according to Mr. Sundram, even manages a larger part of its forest area than Malaysia.

Malaysia is already using a comprehensive catalog of measures (EEP1 to EEP7) to increase the ecological sustainability of palm oil cultivation, which also includes a complex reforestation program. From a bioenergetic point of view, the measures to accelerate the expansion of biogas plants and the production of second generation biofuels from residues from palm oil processing should be mentioned in particular.

Are we consumers willing to pay more for sustainable palm oil?

This is one of the crucial questions and it relates not only to the comparatively rare palm oil product "biodiesel", but to palm oil products as a whole (margarine, candles, detergents, etc.).

What percentage are we willing to pay MORE for an otherwise equivalent product if it was produced in an ecologically sustainable way and even contributes to climate protection in the case of biodiesel. In a sense, unfortunately, organic products are still often luxury products for which the ecological added value of the consumer also has to pay a higher price.

Experience shows that a pessimistic answer to the above question about the accepted additional costs is still very justified, at least in the fuel sector. Given the already high historical prices for fuels, only a few consumers are willing to pay more money for eco-energy products at the petrol station (biofuels).

In the area of ​​green electricity and above all in eco-food, there is a greater willingness to spend more money on ecological quality. I can only speculate as to why this difference in willingness to pay is possible and maybe it is simply the fact that there is significantly more and more successful marketing in the eco-electricity and eco-food sectors.

The palm oil industry in Malaysia has seen a strong trend towards ecological sustainability in recent years. However, we consumers in Europe are still hesitant to reward this commitment with a change in buying behavior. Either because we know too little about the sustainability efforts or because we don't trust the measures taken. The acceptance of palm oil certified as sustainable (RSPO, ISCC etc.) by the major food manufacturers in Europe (Nestle, Unilever, Danone etc.) is at any rate very low, according to the MPOC.

So it happens that the palm oil fat used in chocolate is the only ingredient that can currently be certified as sustainable. But the customer either does not seem to be interested in it or is not sufficiently informed ?!

As moral as it sounds, but if we point to others, then at the same time we should at least critically question and change our own buying behavior.

Graphic overview of palm oil usage global 2010
Palm oil for biofuels in the EU must also be certified as sustainable.

Conclusion on the sustainability of palm oil

Not all major palm oil producing countries are on the same level with regard to their efforts to increase sustainability. In any case, the MPOC event convinced me that Malaysia is trying everything to meet the sustainability standards that consumers and NGOs want. Unfortunately, these efforts have not yet been adequately rewarded by consumers.

After this MPOC palm oil seminar, I cannot provide any information about the sustainability of palm oil from Indonesia - neither in one direction nor in the other. The fact is, however, that every producer country will meet the toughest sustainability standards for its production of vegetable oils at the latest when the consumer is prepared to buy these products in return.

It remains to be stated that palm oil plays a subordinate role in the production of biodiesel and that "only" about 4 percent of the globally produced quantities of palm oil flow into energy use.

Without a doubt, the commitment to protecting the rainforest, as NGOs do, is very important to protect valuable and species-rich ecosystems. NGOs must put their fingers in the wound to uncover and publicize “environmental crimes”!

Organizations such as Greenpeace and Rettet den Regenwald should also take into account corporate social responsibility, which, for example, brings 1 million people to Malaysia in wages and bread. It is usually only a fraction of the producers who overexploit nature and thus endanger the reputation of the entire industry.

Everyone is free to do something very committed against the use of palm oil and someone should do it (!), But the social task and responsibility that the palm oil companies ultimately fulfill together (1 million jobs in Malaysia alone) should be with keep in mind when choosing your approach and designing a campaign.

What do you think?

10 comments on “Palm oil between ecological and social responsibility”

  1. Yes, I appreciate so much all the efforts put forward in all the innovative ideas. All is good for the world at large. Our country has adopted some ideas and the trend is promising.

    My regards to all the initiators,

    David

  2. Thank you for this incredibly interesting and detailed contribution! The issue of palm oil is to be viewed rather critically, the problems you mentioned speak for themselves. The monoculture resulting from the cultivation and the blocking of important hiking trails for elephants and Co. are further problems that must be mentioned. Large customers, such as the Unilever you mentioned (who are responsible for a very, very large number of products in our daily lives), Nestle and Danone must face up to their responsibility and use certified raw materials. We as consumers have to make sure that we buy fewer or no products that contain palm oil from unsustainable cultivation. And there are so many products. For the sake of fun, you should take a look at the list of ingredients so that you can see how big our consumption is.
    Best regards from Bremen, the Bremen Energy Consulting enerpremium sends

  3. Many thanks. And I absolutely agree that sustainability certification for biodiesel made from palm oil can only be the beginning. Above all, we can protect the rainforest from overexploitation if the sustainability of palm oil is also ensured for products such as margarine, shampoo & Co. (after all, 95 percent of the current uses of palm oil).

  4. Maybe it's because I'm a beginner at blogging, but sometimes I have to wonder. You go to the event of palm oil producers and suddenly everything is
    sustainable. It is certainly not an insider secret that we organic farmers often spend a long time on it
    discuss what is organic and therefore sustainable in the long term.
    And there is a lot to consider:
    - Space efficiency: palm oil has a clear advantage
    - Energy consumption for tillage, sowing / planting, harvesting: palm oil also has here
    advantages as permanent culture
    - Risk of water and wind erosion: advantage for palm oil
    - Chemicals and fertilizer use: It is no secret that this is very high in rapeseed and soy
    (Soy can also be grown organically, rape cultivation is with us because of insect problems
    pactically impossible) Palm oil?
    - Use of by-products (soybean meal and rapeseed press cake are very
    coveted, palm oil?)
    - social impact ??
    - This list does not claim to be complete

    Summary: if the producers present their product as sustainable, it is a positive one
    Signs but you can't believe everything like in advertising.

    greetings
    walter

  5. Thank you for this critical but important tip.

    It is actually a risk that should not be underestimated that an MPOC event will continue to remain neutral on the difficult issue of palm oil. That is why I have tried to maintain an inner distance to the content of the seminar.

    On the other hand, it doesn't really help how much we are influenced by the palm oil contra side. There is practically no counterbalance in the press to the arguments of some NGOs. I don't think that's right either! Just because the production of palm oil is now “an industry” doesn't mean that all palm oil producers are necessarily criminals and consciously accept the deforestation of the rainforest. It is a difficult conflict how we can stop the black sheep in the palm oil industry, but do not endanger the many manufacturers and jobs, some of whom are very committed to protecting the rainforest.

    Thank you for confirming the numerous advantages of this oil plant (oil palm) so openly as an organic farmer.

    You wrote that you are “new to blogging”. Do you have your own blog?

    Best regards,
    Ron

  6. To be honest, the knife in my pocket opened while reading the report. Yes, they were "lulled" by MPOC lobbying and I found their report a bit biased and in good faith. It may be that efforts on Malay territory are making great strides to produce "sustainable" palm oil, apart from the fact that it simply does NOT exist. But there is a good reason why Indonesia, as the largest palm oil producing country, is not mentioned. The producers there are light years away from sustainability. How can something be called sustainable when centuries-old primeval forest is cut down in just a few weeks to create dead deserts? You cannot seriously assume that something is sustainable if I cut down a tree and plant another tree for it!
    And the “well-intentioned” attempt by the RSPO is nothing more than a green cloak that the corrupt entrepreneurs from Wilmar put on in order not to be pilloried for their environmental and social crimes.

    Just watch the film "Sustainability Lie" from Globalfilm. I don't know if they still hold that opinion.

  7. Total bullshit. Biofuel = ethanol, palm oil = diversionary manouv ... Palm oil does not play a role in the biofuel discussion because you just want to talk about something else. Of course, a few earn something with it. If the Germans had a love for forests, primeval forests would still exist today. The Elbe was a chemical soup until the beginning of the 90s, in DE everything was simply destroyed, millions of people were murdered and now people want to say how the others should behave. It couldn't be more hypocritical.

  8. Anyone who has ever been to Malaysia, Borneo or Brazil can congratulate the lobbyists here - Chapeau!
    There is no rainforest in Borneo except for heavily mountainous terrain!
    After 2 cultivation cycles at the latest, the acreage becomes deserted and the rainforest is lost.

    It is certainly not up to us to prescribe to the governments of these countries how they operate.

    However, it is up to us to see the topic realistically and to avoid palm oil products or to speak to the manufacturers.

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