Cargill looks to smallholders for sustainable palm oil

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A major US agribusiness has joined forces with non-profit Solidaridad and Malaysian environment group Wild Asia to boost sustainable palm oil production through certification. Oliver Balch reports.

Sales of face masks have spiked in Singapore and Malaysia over recent months. The reason is simple: Sumatra’s forests are burning, and the resulting ash cloud has proved stifling for those downwind.

This year’s spate of wild fires has brought the role of palm oil production in the region, and especially the practice of slash-and-burn for forest clearance, into sharp focus. Around one fifth of the fires occur on palm plantations. The majority of these are associated with small, non-certified producers, according to the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a multi-stakeholder certification body that sets standards for good farm practices, including fire prevention and responsible forest management.

“Companies that are certified manage this process much better than those that are not”, insists Darrel Webber, Secretary General of RSPO.

Palm oil is found in half of all grocery goods, including bread, body lotion and lipstick, according to the RSPO. And global production is growing: total capacity increased 128% over the last decade to 58 million tonnes per year, with demand expected to double to 100 million tonnes by 2050. At present, only 15% of globally produced palm oil is RSPO-certified, though the organisation has made headway among large palm oil producers since it was established in 2004. Its impact among smallholders has been minimal, however. And given that in Malaysia, the world’s second largest palm oil producer, smallholders farmers are responsible for between 35%-40% of total volumes of crude palm oil, that’s something that needs to change. Fast.

Cargill, a major US agribusiness, is seeking to turn this around. It has launched a three-year pilot to encourage greater uptake of sustainable certification by smallholders, in conjunction with Dutch agricultural non-profit Solidaridad and Malaysian environment group Wild Asia. The project will initially focus on 2,500 independent producers based in Port Klang, close to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. Visit Wild Asia’s Group Scheme (WAGS) for more information on our work with smallholders.

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