Palm oil is an ingredient as widespread as it is controversial. Found in products like food, cosmetics, soap and even detergent, it is a hot topic among those concerned with the environment, animal welfare, and food justice. In the media there has been a lot of attention on palm oil, especially for the downside of its production. Images of forest and wildlife habitat destruction make us think we’d better stay away from it. But that is not the full story. Done right, palm oil can be one of the most sustainable oils in the world, supporting people, communities and the environment, and enhancing the quality and performance of the food, personal care and household products we use on a daily basis.
Growing Palm Differently: 100% Organic & Sustainable
When Dutch entrepreneur Alfons van der Aa, founder and CEO of Natural Habitats, embarked on his organic palm oil journey he was convinced that palm oil could be grown differently. That is, grown in a way that ensures everyone can benefit from the many advantages that palm oil has to offer. With that idea in mind he founded Natural Habitats and committed to creating positive change in a contentious sector.
Alfons owned a small plantation in Ecuador and was looking to make an impact through organic palm growing. To bring his vision to scale, it was clear he needed to work with local conventional oil palm growers and convert them to organic practices rather than simply buying more land as other producers often did. He also understood that he had to convince manufacturers to replace conventional palm oil and choose organic, responsibly grown palm oil for their brands. This shift, on both ends of the supply chain, was the solution to eradicate the bad practices and exploitation that were so widespread in the sector. He said, “I had two goals. First, to find a faster way to scale sustainable practices and second, to create impact by converting conventional farmers and showing them a new model for growing palm oil. This new model is organic, sustainable and fair, benefitting farmers, their communities, and the environment which they depend upon.” Thus began his vision for Palm Done Right, a movement initiated by Natural Habitats and dedicated to leading positive change in the palm oil industry. A growing number of farmers, brands and retailers have joined the movement since its inception.
Palm Done Right
Palm oil can be found in 50% of consumer products on grocery shelves and constitutes about 35% of all vegetable oil produced on the planet. Its unique chemical structure makes it an incredibly versatile ingredient for texture, taste, stability, and shelf life. Palm oil ingredients can be found in products like food (including vegan butter, cookies and tortillas), cosmetics, shampoo and even detergent. And, while it’s true that the irresponsible farming and production of palm have led to the devastation of natural habitats, local environments and wildlife, that’s not the full story.
Due to a large degree of media attention on the actions of the bad players in the palm oil industry, there is a common misconception that there is no such thing as sustainable palm oil. Yet, Palm Done Right is proving that sustainable palm oil becomes a reality when companies (and countries) elevate their standards and don’t compromise. The first step is taking a serious approach to the challenges facing palm oil: Eradicating the use of chemicals by using 100% organic practices, rejecting the practice of deforestation, taking a wildlife-friendly approach to oil palm growing, and ensuring a fair and socially responsible approach to farmers and workers.
Natural Habitats Makes Palm Done Right a Reality
Natural Habitats takes the challenges facing palm oil very seriously in its production landscapes. Natural Habitats refrains from deforestation, exploitation, and controls greenhouse gas emissions in its production landscapes through the strict adherence to organic and sustainable production practices.
Since it started its operations in 2009, it has operated under a strict Land Use Policy that serves to prevent any conflict in relation to land use and preserves the associated rights of the local inhabitants. Likewise, its strict Forest Conservation Policy prohibits the conversion of primary and secondary forests into agricultural production areas, tree plantations, or other degrading land uses. Natural Habitat’s company values and the Palm Done Right Model are the foundations that govern its palm oil operations in the spirit of Palm Done Right. The Palm Done Right production model sets the standard for organic production, farmer empowerment and value chain collaboration, essential components that must be provided together.
Farmer empowerment involves training farmers in organic practices and farm management, raising awareness for a range of environmental and social subjects, training on certification principles and criteria, administrative and certification support, guidance on creating associations, guidance on community support projects and providing market data (prices). This support and training on a broad range of topics helps farmers transition from their conventional farming to organic, fair trade and sustainable farming practices. Without farmer empowerment, organic agriculture will not bring maximum benefits to yields, livelihoods, soils and ecosystems.
Value chain collaboration involves connecting all actors in the product chain through an integrated approach, enabling market-level innovations to trickle down to farmers (e.g., regenerative agriculture developments), and whereby certain Natural Habitats customers pay an additional Fair for Life premium, collected in a fund, that is used to finance community projects. It’s about working together with the objective of creating benefits at all levels in the supply chain. Without value chain collaboration, organic production will not receive the market reward, investment and scale that are crucial to its viability. Without innovating toward organic production, Natural Habitats would not have succeeded in bringing quality, health and sustainability solutions to its customers, partners and farmers.
Natural Habitats operations are certified by the National Organic Program, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, Fair for Life and Rainforest Alliance, which serve to verify its commitment to the Palm Done Right Model.
Saying “No” Is Not The Solution
One challenge is that a growing number of consumers say “no” to palm oil and don’t realize that replacing it with other vegetable oil-based ingredients, such as soybean or coconut oil, doesn’t solve the issue of deforestation but actually replaces and/or worsens it. Palm oil is the most productive vegetable oil crop and produces at least six times more oil per hectare than its closest rivals, rapeseed and soybean oil. Because land is one of the most limited resources on our overcrowded planet, switching to an oil crop that takes up so much more land is likely to cause even greater environmental damage.
Educating consumers to look for sustainable sources of palm oil, such as palm oil made using 100% organic practices, is critical to creating positive change. We need to start showcasing the great solutions that already exist and encourage good practices by rewarding deforestation-free and wildlife-friendly palm oil.
How To Continue The Conversation: Some Solutions
In order to continue the growth and production of palm oil that is organic, deforestation-free, wildlife-friendly, fair and socially-responsible, we need commitment, collaboration and transparency.
Real collaboration requires trust and demands a long-term commitment between Natural Habitats and farmers. But it also demands that farmers are involved in the decisions that Natural Habitats makes as a company. Sebastian Rojas, farmer liaison officer at Natural Habitats says, “Our decisions, but also those of the market, influence all actors in the supply chain. Farmers are often, unintentionally, negatively affected by those decisions. Yet, when farmers see and feel a commitment from the entire chain, a fruitful collaboration can emerge. Then, together, we can change things for the better. Farmers will be in a position to innovate and take full advantage of the value and possibilities that their farms have to offer.”
For Forests and Wildlife
Palm growing in unison with nature is possible when we make environmental protection an integral part of agricultural activities. This requires a commitment to no-deforestation by prohibiting conversion of forests into agricultural land and precautionary actions for forest preservation and zero-burning practices. It also demands continuous support and training for farmers to manage their plantations and surrounding conservation areas such that it secures species diversity. Commitment and collaboration are key to making this a reality.
For Manufacturers & Retailers
Natural Habitats encourages manufacturers and retailers to be open about their palm oil use. This means that brands should provide clear labeling on packaging and have an open conversation with their consumers explaining why they choose palm for their products, and why they will continue to use it. Committed Palm Done Right partners understand the importance of buying palm oil from sustainable sources and providing clear labeling, transparency, and consumer education.
Ultimately, the product purchasing decisions made by consumers determine whether farmers in places like Ecuador will have better lives and whether nature will be preserved. There is no need to ban palm oil–it is about making the right decisions. Shoppers need to check product labels and verify if the ingredients in those products are produced in the right way. And, consumers need to demand that brands are transparent in their labeling. This way we can all continue to enjoy all the advantages that this beautiful crop has to offer.
-  Natural Habitats [online]. https://www.natural-habitats.com
-  Palm Done Right [online] (2020). https://www.palmdoneright.com
-  Palm Done Right [online] (2020). https://www.palmdoneright.com/en/the-people-doing-palm-right/brand-partners/
-  Land Use Policy [online]. https://459lxh3g9oiv1cbtth3r0dnz-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Land-Use-Policy_Natural-Habitats_2020.pdf
-  Forest Conservation Policy [online]. https://459lxh3g9oiv1cbtth3r0dnz-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Forest-Conservation-Policy_Natural-Habitats_2020.pdf
-  USDA Agricultural Marketing Service [online] (2020). https://www.ams.usda.gov/about-ams/programs-offices/national-organic-program
-  Principles and Criteria for the Production of Sustainable Palm Oil 2018, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (revised June 5, 2020) [online] https://rspo.org/resources/certification/rspo-principles-criteria-certification
-  Fair for Life [online] (2020). https://www.fairforlife.org/
-  Rain Forest Alliance [online] (2020). https://www.rainforest-alliance.org
-  WWF-UK. 8 Things to Know About Palm Oil [online] (2020). https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/8-things-know-about-palm-oil. See also https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Oil-palm-production-efficiency-compared-to-other-major-oil-crops_fig3_318828933
-  International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Saying ‘no’ to palm oil would likely displace, not halt biodiversity loss – IUCN report [online] (2018). https://www.iucn.org/news/secretariat/201806/saying-no-palm-oil-would-likely-displace-not-halt-biodiversity-loss—iucn-report