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Sustainable Palm Oil: Greener Agriculture Or Greenwashing?

Cargill, an international producer and marketer of food, announced that they are now able to offer certified sustainable palm oil to north American food manufacturers.

Take The Good With The Bad

Palm oil is an edible plant oil that is used in 50 percent of all consumer goods. It is desired by so many processed foods because it stays semi-solid at room temperature, keeps food really moist, and has a high oxidative stability used for frying.

The vegetable oil also contains a source of beta carotene and vitamin E. A 25-acre palm oil plantation can yield as much as $7,000 a year for a farmer.

It sounds perfect - but why are people against using the product? That's because palm oil has also been associated with massive rain forest destruction. The rapid expansion of palm oil plantations in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brazil has erased some of the planet's most extensive and important rain forests.

The controversy over palm oil hit a fever pitch recently when two young scouts protested the use of the stuff in Girl Scout cookies. Their massive letter-writing campaign to the Girls Scouts head office stated they were worried about orangutan habitats in the areas where the plantations were located.

Oils Of The Roundtable

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a group that was created in 2004 to "promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil."

The group charges $2000 per company to become part of the roundtable, and it bestows the sustainable label to palm oil growers, which is how Cargill received their certification. (The roundtable, however, doesn't require its members to purchase sustainable palm oil.)

To become certified producers, the roundtable mandates that farmers and companies cannot develop in areas of high conservation value; they must maintain soil fertility; and they must share relevant information on environmental, social, or legal issues.

Good PR?

The roundtable was developed in hopes of creating more sustainable ways of producing palm oil, but some environmental companies have come to the conclusion that RSPO is not only ineffective, it's really only being used as a way to greenwash poor palm oil practices.

Greenwashing, "the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service," makes environmental organizations like Greenpeace very angry:

Some companies have tried to side-step responsibility for the destruction caused by their palm oil use by hiding behind the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The RSPO seems to be creating the illusion of sustainable palm oil, justifying the expansion of the industry, forest destruction, and climate pollution.

Greenpeace contends that the current RSPO standards do nothing to protect forests and peatlands from being leveled to create palm oil farms partially because the standards aren't being regulated.

An investigation in 2008 revealed that United Plantations, the first company to be certified by the RSPO for their work in Malaysia, continued with "business as usual" at their plantations in the Central Kalimantan region of Indonesia. The investigation reports that the company continues to clear "significant forests" in the area.

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