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Leon Kaye headshot

Palm Oil Sustainability Takes One Important Step Forward

By Leon Kaye
Palm Oil Sustainability

The ongoing challenge to bolster palm oil sustainability has largely fallen off the radar — due in part, of course, to one of the most worrisome and volatile times in recent memory. Neverthless, concerns over environmental stewardship and human rights are still bedeviling this global industry.

To that end, it says a lot that the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) has lauded PepsiCo for its adoption of a new palm oil sourcing policy, which closes a common loophole found in many global companies’ palm oil supply chains. RAN is among several NGOs that had insisted PepsiCo’s previous stance on palm oil was falling short of environmental and social protections.

A bolder palm oil sustainability plan that closes the loopholes

The food and beverage giant recently updated its policy to mandate all of its palm oil suppliers, not just the ones from which PepsiCo directly purchases this raw material, to commit to “No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation,” or as the industry commonly calls this, NDPE.

Over the past decade, many companies have publicly announced NDPE policies, but critics of both the palm oil industry and the companies that buy this ingredient have countered that only focusing on direct suppliers meant that vast quantities of palm oil was still coming from dubious sources. Calls for industry-wide reform have continued, despite the fact that more responsibly-sourced palm oil has made its way into food and personal care companies’ supply chains.

In December 2018, TriplePundit’s Nithin Coca succinctly summed up why this industry has continued to be the focus of widespread scrutiny:

“Here’s the problem — not all land is equal, especially from an environmental or biodiversity perspective. Oil palm trees grow only in tropical regions, in the same place where rainforests exist. Rainforests are the lungs of the planet, sequester immense carbon stocks and host widespread biodiversity.”

Cautious optimism about the palm oil sector

Mongabay, a nonprofit conservation and environmental science news platform that has long been critical of many companies that comprise the palm oil industry’s global supply chain, is among the publications that has welcomed this shift:

“In addition to worker welfare, PepsiCo’s NDPE policy also commits it to addressing the problem of deforestation. In Indonesia, that centers on the alleged clearing and planting activity by a PepsiCo supplier inside the Leuser Ecosystem in North Sumatra.”

PepsiCo’s decision could nudge its competitors to frame palm oil sustainability policies that are more watertight. Such action is important when one considers the impact palm oil production has worldwide. According to the NGO International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), global palm oil production surged 15-fold between 1980 and 2014. While the IUCN acknowledges that palm oil is part of ensuring global food security and economic development, the organization says unchecked production poses risk to over half of the globe’s threatened mammals and almost two-thirds of threatened bird species. And as recently as January, Amnesty International described palm oil plantations in Indonesia as a “disgrace,” with one senior investigator, Meghna Abraham, reporting:

“Something is wrong when nine companies turning over a combined revenue of $325 billion in 2015 are unable to do something about the atrocious treatment of palm oil workers earning a pittance.”

Looking ahead

RAN welcomed PepsiCo’s announcement, and made it clear the NGO would look forward on working with the company and the wider industry on palm oil sustainability.

“We commend PepsiCo for adopting a comprehensive policy and leading actions that, if implemented, will drive change in its palm oil supply chain as well as the broader palm oil industry,” said Robin Averbeck, agribusiness campaign director with RAN.

Image credit: Tafilah Yusof/Pixabay

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye