TODAY, the world population stands at 7.6 billion and is expected to reach nine billion by 2050.
While the world’s population is increasing at a fast rate, the availability of arable land remains roughly the same.
In fact, arable land is becoming more scarce relative to the number of people who have to be fed.
According to figures from the United Nations, an additional 2.7 million to 4.9 million hectares of cropland will be required every year to feed the growing world’s population.
Climate change, urban development and rural population migration affect agriculture directly.
Every year, between one million and two million hectares of land become unsuitable for cultivation due to land degradation.
Efforts to rehabilitate these degraded lands are extremely expensive.
Therefore, more innovative and efficient agricultural land use policies are needed to feed the continuously growing global population.
The first fact to recognise when considering global food security is that the world is not homogeneous.
Global food production is not evenly distributed among all countries. Countries with a conducive climate and human capacity have surplus food production and will not encounter food security issues.
On the other hand, countries which are less well-endowed will encounter food security issues.
Very often, the countries facing food security issues are those with large populations. This, clearly, is a potential cause of significant economic and social instability.
By 2050, when the world’s population reaches nine billion, an additional 35 million tonnes of oils and fats will be needed every year. This posts a major challenge where large areas of land will be required to meet the additional demand.
For example, to produce 35 million tonnes of oils and fats, it will require 88 million hectares of land for soybean or 58 million hectares for sunflower.
Alternatively, only nine million hectares of oil palm would be needed to produce the same volume of food – actual areas may be smaller due to productivity improvements over time.
Realising this, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has recognised the importance of planting oil palm for food security, especially in developing countries. Although oil palm occupies only 0.3% of total agricultural land, the crop contributes more than 30% of the world’s supply of oils and fats.
This world-leading efficiency on its own has not been sufficient to lead palm oil into the good graces of decision-makers. Consistent negative campaigns about palm oil’s environmental impact have damaged its image and forced the industry to respond to prove its sustainability credentials.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is today the most widely accepted sustainability certification scheme for palm oil, particularly for use in food and chemicals. Indeed, RSPO has made significant progress and impact in promoting the production, supply and use of sustainable palm oil.
However, there are signs that RSPO is increasingly alienating the oil palm growers who have become disillusioned over the continuously shifting sustainability criteria or their application during audits.
Let’s look at the statistics of RSPO membership. In 2008, four years after RSPO’s formation, grower members made up 19.1% of total membership while 10 years later in 2018, only a mere 4.4% of the total membership comprised the grower members. These statistics showing a gross under-representation of growers should be a wake-up call for RSPO and the advocates for sustainable palm oil.
The oil palm growers are the ones who bear the brunt of the hard work, undergoing regular audits involving almost 100 criteria. They form the source of the palm oil supply chain on which the very existence of RSPO depends. If the golden goose which lays the golden eggs disappears or shrinks substantially, it would be meaningless for the rest of the members who are food companies, retailers, NGOs and other stakeholders to talk about promoting the use of sustainable palm oil.
RSPO’s core objective is to “promote” the production, supply and use of sustainable palm oil.
Promote means encourage and has an underlying tone of voluntary effort and incentives.
However, when membership for growers turn into an avalanche of complaints against their production practices in the Complaints List and hardly any complaint against other member groups, coupled with the less than 50% uptake of their certified production volume and the fast-declining RSPO premium, it may not be surprising that the growth in the growers membership is so slow and the under-representation of the grower members becomes so stark.
Due to the stringent RSPO criteria and the significant certification costs, there is a real need for other certification schemes that are cheaper, less complex and more broad-based.
The Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil scheme, for example, is a much-welcomed certification scheme which is backed by the Malaysian government and can be adopted by a much wider spectrum of the oil palm growers, including the smallholders.
Western NGOs activism
The era of Internet and social media has been a boon to NGOs.
Very often, environmental NGOs from the Western countries are able to reach out to netizens around the world and garner strong followings to promote their cause. Palm oil is not spared and has been a favourite target for these NGOs.
Armed with mostly academic knowledge gained from Western institutions and information extracted from studies based on dubious science, activists from these NGOs who are mostly in their 20s and 30s have a tendency to exert their opinion on oil palm growers who are less educated but nevertheless have spent many years practising their trade.
Even though these NGOs are relatively small in size, with manpower as low as five for the smallest to perhaps a few hundred for the bigger ones, due to the clever use of social media and shrewd propaganda tactics, they are able to sway consumer perception and dictate to the oil palm grower communities which total several million people how environmental conservation should be carried out in less developed countries.
It is acknowledged that NGOs and other activist groups play an important role in providing alternative views and acting as check and balance on matters of interest.
However, in many instances, their approach to resolving issues could be changed to be less confrontational, more sympathetic and more collaborative.
The fact is that the oil palm growers on the ground are the ones who have to do the tough job of ensuring that oil palm is grown in an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable manner.
The campaign by NGOs and other activist groups in restricting oil palm planting has been effective as can be seen from the much slower planting area expansion over the last few years.
The Indonesian government has extended a moratorium on approving new land for oil palm planting and recently, the Malaysian government has also announced a restriction on oil palm expansion in Malaysia.
These are good short-term measures that allow proper environmental protection measures to be implemented effectively on the ground and to moderate the growth in the supply of palm oil in the global vegetable oil market.
However, a proper balance should be struck to avoid other social-economic problems such as food security, food price inflation and an imbalance in rural development from surfacing in the longer term.
Datuk Lee Yeow Chor is chairman of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council.