By Michael Taylor
KUALA LUMPUR - The next big challenge for palm oil growers is to go beyond curbing deforestation and look at how they can slash planet-warming emissions throughout their supply chains, the outgoing head of the industry's watchdog said on Tuesday.
The sector has come under scrutiny in recent years from green activists and consumers who have blamed it for forest loss and fires to clear land, as well as exploitation of workers.
But Darrel Webber, chief executive officer of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), said producers should not only focus on protecting forests and boosting yields, but examine their entire businesses to stop them worsening climate change.
"People will question why you are using any fossil fuels in your operations," said Webber, who is due to leave the Kuala Lumpur-based organisation on Thursday after nine years at the helm.
"Some will ask: 'What are your carbon emissions per tonne of palm oil produced?'," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation
Palm oil is the world's most widely used edible oil, found in everything from margarine to biscuits, and soap to soups.
Under pressure to tighten standards, the 4,500-member RSPO - which includes producers, traders, buyers and green groups in more than 90 countries - introduced tougher rules in late 2018 to include a ban on felling forests for oil palm plantations.
"Climate change issues have been there a long time but there is a greater sense of urgency," said Webber, who previously worked for a grower, a consumer goods firm and green group WWF.
"It is almost guaranteed that this sense of urgency will be ramped up in the coming years."
While deforestation has decreased in Indonesia and Malaysia - which produce nearly 90% of global palm oil supplies - a major question is whether small growers will follow larger companies in trying to clamp down on it, said Webber.
There are more than 2 million smallholders across Malaysia and Indonesia producing about 40% of the two nations' palm oil.
It was "hard to predict" whether smaller growers would try to avoid intensifying scrutiny of the industry by switching crops or supplying only domestic markets, Webber added.
One of the biggest threats to forests lies in "frontier" markets in Africa and Latin America, where palm oil demand is rising but home-grown supplies remain relatively small, warned Webber.
Potential expansion there by new and often unregulated growers could "slowly chip away at forests", he added.
In Southeast Asia, technologies like satellite imaging and radar have become key tools in the fight against forest destruction.
But the approach is too fragmented, Webber said, adding that the whole industry needed to push forward together.
"I sometimes wonder if there is a beauty pageant for satellite images," he said. "It's all nice and pretty but not scalable ... Hopefully it can consolidate at some point."
During Webber's tenure, the RSPO was criticised by some activists for being lax in handling complaints and rule breaches.
Yet while it would be easy to throw offending companies out of the organisation, that would make it harder to improve the situation where they operate, Webber said.
"If there is no change on the ground, who does it serve?" he asked.
On a field trip to the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah, Webber recalled seeing how school schemes funded by the RSPO helped educate the children of migrant plantation workers.
Another highlight was visiting small-scale growers on the Indonesian part of Borneo island who had improved yields and used their additional income to build a water park.
Inspired by teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and his own nine-year-old son who "helps me focus", Webber said he now wanted to support large companies in Asia, Africa and Latin America in their efforts to tackle global warming.
"If all these climate change solutions come from the north and not from the south, it will not be sustainable," he said.