Deforestation-free palm oil is not an automatic win-win

New palm oil regulations could have impact for farmers, experts say

Indonesia is the world’s largest palm oil producer. The versatile and edible oil can be found in everything from pizza dough to instant noodles and bread. Favored for its relatively high yield, low cost and diversity of use, especially among food manufacturers, palm oil is found in about half of all packaged products sold in supermarkets around the world.

Over the past two decades, palm oil has become essential for Indonesia’s economy. Today more than 30 million tons a year is produced, employing more than three million people. But the production of palm oil has triggered global concern over its associated with tropical forest loss.

To tackle these challenges, one of the world’s major trading blocs, the European Union, has agreed in December 2022 on regulations to be adopted in 2023 which prohibit the trade of products that are not deforestation-free. The implementation of these European Union Deforestation Regulations (EUDR) could contribute to reduce deforestation and emissions from consumption within the EU.

However, experts at the GCRF Trade Hub High-Level Policy Dialogue in April 2023 in Indonesia raised concerns that such regulations could have impact for farmers and producing countries.

Climate and biodiversity threat

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), The world has lost 178 million hectares of forest since 1990, an area about the size of Libya. About half of the total 23 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and forestry are from forestry and land use change, mostly deforestation.

The EUDR affects seven commodities: soy, beef, palm oil, wood, cocoa, coffee and rubber – and derived products such as leather, chocolate or furniture. The regulation aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and fight climate change and biodiversity loss, preventing companies from trading deforestation-linked commodities.

Since the European Union constitutes Indonesia’s fourth largest export destination for palm oil, with 11% of the country’s total palm oil export market share­­, Indonesia will need to demonstrate that commodities have not been produced on land that has been subject to deforestation or forest degradation after 31 December 2020, to comply with the EUDR.

Syncing existing policy

Experts speaking at the event emphasized that policies to deliver benefits for Indonesia while reducing impacts to high-risk forested landscapes and rural communities already exist. They include Indonesia’s national climate change mitigation strategy, the Forestry and Other Land Uses (FOLU) Net Sink 2030.

CIFOR-ICRAF Director of Asia, Dr. Sonya Dewi, noted: “Indonesia’s ambition to reach FOLU Net Sink by 2030 is commended globally. And the Ministry of Environment and forestry has very actively socialized the commitment with sub-national stakeholders in order to strive towards implementation.

“Avoiding and controlling deforestation is one of the few most important strategies to meet the targets of FOLU Net Sink, and therefore there is a very strong synergy between the EU Deforestation Free declaration and FOLU Net Sink, launched by the government of Indonesia.”

Musdhalifah Machmud, Deputy Minister of Food and Agribusiness, Coordinating Ministry of Economic Affairs, Indonesia, agreed that regulations are critical to the long-term sustainability of the sector.

“All of us here have the same vision, spirit and willingness. We would like to have all of our resources managed in a sustainable way.” She noted that a balance is needed to create economic, social and environmental gains from palm oil.

Consumer focus

Understanding consumer country demand for and policies on sustainable palm oil such as the EUDR, and impacts on smallholder producers, was a key part of the dialogue in the consultation in Indonesia. Rizal Affandi Lukman, Secretary General of Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries (CPOPC), said that because palm oil is a market-driven commodity, both consumers and producers should be considered in its trade.

“The government of Indonesia and Malaysia, have made great efforts in promoting sustainable palm oil. Respectively we already have national certification schemes, therefore I think EU also needs to listen and look into the efforts done in meeting these sustainability standards,” he said, adding that smallholder farmers should not be burdened with the costs of meeting new due diligence standards.

This was a point echoed by Abetnego Tarigan, Deputy Chief of Staff for Human Development of the Executive Office of the President of the Republic of Indonesia, who emphasized that Indonesia is committed to reducing deforestation, the rate of which has declined.

Ensuring sustainable palm oil production, without policies becoming burdensome to some countries, is important he said. He emphasized that each country has its own priorities. For example, in Indonesia, poverty reduction and development is a prioritized policy issue, while maybe in Europe is not.

Fitri Nurfatriani, Coordinator for Environment, Forestry, and Water Resources Conservation, at Deputy of Policy Development, BRIN, said that the government of Indonesia has improved certification systems and declared a national action plan on sustainable palm oil to accelerate sustainability, market access and resolution conflict, working alongside smallholder farmers to reduce expansion of farming into forest areas while increasing their productivity and meeting FOLU targets to reduce emissions.

Robert Nasi, acting Chief Executive Officer of ICRAF-CIFOR, said: “There is a long history of agriculture and deforestation. We tend to forget that most of Europe has been deforested for agriculture. Is there any wheat or potato produced in Europe or the US that is coming from land that was not forest before?

“Now 80% of deforestation in tropical forests is linked to agriculture.” But replacing palm oil with any other crop would require ten times the area of land, and improving biodiversity is critical for long-term sustainability, he added.

Middle ground

Finding a middle ground to address complexity was urged. If exports to Europe decline, other major buyers including India, China and Pakistan will become increasingly important. While encouraging deforestation-free palm oil can tackle Indonesia’s emission targets and deduce deforestation, it will not be a win-win if farmers do not benefit.

Mansuetus Darto, Secretariat-General of Palm Oil Farmers Union, said that the regulations could create positive impacts for smallholders if exporters provide training to smallholders and investment assistance. Some of the regulation impacts will only occur in next 5 years, and monitoring the impacts will be an on-going part of the due diligence process that indigenous communities will be part of, he said.

But second-generation smallholder oil palm farmer and Indonesian Palm Oil Farmers Association (APKASINDO) representative Maria Goldameir Mektania said that shifting trade from Europe towards China may be a better long-term strategy. “It seems we are being dictated to by EUDR. If were not complying with their demands are then they are not going to purchase our commodities. Meanwhile, Indonesian smallholders are already starting to apply sustainable practices,” she said, adding that sudden “regulation will only put is in a corner.”

Agus Purnomo, Senior Advisor Sustainability, Sinar Mas Agribusiness and Food, said: “Can Indonesia supply deforestation-free and sustainable palm oil to Europe? The answer is yes. We can deliver it today, we can deliver it next year, tomorrow… We are not debating whether we can deliver the products but the different priorities of Indonesia and Europe… Let’s work on that. No one wants to destroy our own forests. We have the calculations, we follow the international regulations,” he said.

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