Stressing need for improved smallholder performance, palm oil expert suggests public-private partnership

Stressing need for improved smallholder performance, palm oil expert suggests public-private partnership
-A +A

KUALA LUMPUR (Jan 5): While smallholder farmers make up 40% of the global palm oil output, they only account for 8.8% of certified sustainable palm oil production (CSPO).

Solidaridad Network Asia Senior Adviser Teoh Cheng Hai, who pointed this out today, said independent smallholders in particular have been underperforming in terms of productivity and income.

At one level, certification by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) presents challenges for the smallholders in terms of legality, best management practices and traceability. 

On another level, fast-moving consumer good companies through the support of the CSPO credits have limited on-ground investments in operation sustainability, when it comes to CSPO.

“[Therefore greater] ‘boots on the ground’ support is required to transform the smallholder sector,” Teoh said during a panel discussion on sustainability at the Palm Oil Trade Fair and Seminar 2021 organised by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC).

He said one way of achieving improved smallholder performance is through public-private partnerships.

An example of this is the National Initiatives for Sustainable Climate-Smart Palm Oil Palm Smallholders (NI-SCOPS), which refers to four bilateral agreements signed between the Netherlands and Malaysia, Ghana, Nigeria and Indonesia.

Teoh noted when it comes to the challenges of scaling up CSPO production, there is a need for an exponential increase in grower members of the RSPO, in order to make CSPO the norm.

However, continuing scrutiny surrounding market leaders, poor CSPO uptake and the compensation for retrospective non-compliance could be demotivating for others to join the multilateral organisation.

He said national standards such as the Malaysian Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) and Indonesian Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) raise the floor in terms of sustainability performance and assurances of legal compliance. However, there is a need to strengthen the standards to enhance credibility and market acceptance.

Indeed, RSPO membership growth has been slow between 2011 and 2020. Membership among growers rose 116% to 190 in 2020, from 88 in 2011. In contrast, the number of manufacturer members grew 541% to 891, from 139 during the same period.

MPOC Science and Environment Division director Dr Ruslan Abdullah said sustainability demands may not necessarily fulfil sustainability criteria, as they cater to the most powerful and strangers, the noisiest and most influential and very seldom address the ideas of sustainability.

According to him, one of the reasons for the constant attacks on palm oil is its higher yield (4.08 tonnes per hectare per year), versus rapeseed (0.75 tonnes), sunflower oil (0.60 tonnes) and soybean (0.38 tonnes).

As such, he said balancing sustainability and sustainability demands is a delicate affair, with increased public awareness necessary when it comes to making correct decisions on palm oil

“Changing narratives by prominent NGOs in support of sustainable palm oil [will also help],” Ruslan said.

Meanwhile, Professor Guendalina Graffigna of the EngageMinds Hub, Food & Health Engagement Research Centre at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, said academic studies have found that palm oil-free products are perceived by consumers to be healthier and more eco-friendly, evidencing gasp of knowledge about palm oil among consumer.

She said based on the EngageMinds Hub survey among Italian consumers, 49% of those surveyed often or always purchase palm oil-free products and that 65% of the respondents believed fake news concerning agricultural products in the past three months.

“We crossed these two groups, and we saw that people who came in across fake news in the agrisector were the ones who voted more toward palm oil-free products than the average population,” said Graffigna.

She added that those who had a higher level of clinical anxiety also saw a higher degree of consumption when it came to palm oil-free products, the same with those that showed symptoms of depression.

Conversely, the survey also found that people who were more worried about their finances were less keen when it came to consuming palm oil-free products.

“From my perspective, there are very deep emotional roots behind the worries and attitudes to palm oil. It is not only a matter of knowledge, it is also a matter of fantasies, a matter of worries and overall psychological sentiment of a population.

“When people are worried, we do not completely understand why. They tend to be particularly worried about palm oil. We see a similar pattern with milk, i.e. lactose free products and gluten free products.

“People who are afraid, with emotional dynamics, tend to consider free-form products as healthier because they are seen to be more protective at a psychological level,” said Graffigna.

Read also:
MPOC expects CPO price to remain above RM3,000 per tonne in 2021
Malaysian govt, palm oil industry players guarantee sustainable palm oil
Palm oil, palm export value to surpass RM70b — minister 
MPOC: Palm oil production to increase to 19.6 million tonnes in 2021

S Kanagaraju