Palm oil sustainability in focus

By Lorraine Mullaney

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Palm oil

Growers need an incentive for good practice
Growers need an incentive for good practice
Still the fires burn, clearing rainforest to plant the world's most sought after vegetable oil. Is there any hope for sustainability? asks Lorraine Mullaney

Key points

It’s all about the melting point. Palm oil remains solid at room temperature, which makes it suitable for products that require a certain spreadability or melting behaviour. It’s also heavily saturated, so it lends itself to a good creamy texture and has a good shelf-life.

This functionality has made palm oil so popular that it is used in around 60% of the products on supermarket shelves. It’s in pastry, bread, spreads, ice cream, margarine, chocolate, sauces, deep-frying fat and milk substitutes.

Then there’s the high yield of the oil palm tree: around 10 times higher per hectare than soy, eight times higher than sunflower and six times higher than rapeseed oil and it’s clear why palm oil is the world's most used vegetable oil.

Over the last decade, global palm oil production has doubled from 25.4Mt in 2002 to 53.4Mt in 2012, (source: forecasting service ISTA Mielke). With our burgeoning population and increasing consumption in emerging markets, this is set to increase to an estimated 77Mt by 2050, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

And still the fires burn. Converting forests into plantations, contributing to pollution and climate change and destroying the habitat of endangered wildlife such as orangutans, which are dying at an estimated rate of 6,000 a year as a result of deforestation.

At its first summit to be held in Europe, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) called for a greater sense of urgency to transform the European market for palm oil and make the industry fully sustainable.

Darrel Webber, secretary general of the RSPO, lamented the fact that some markets had regressed in their commitment to sourcing sustainably certified palm soil. He said: “This lack of support can discourage growers around the world to continue their efforts towards more sustainable practices in oil palm cultivation.”

If industry makes the shift towards buying sustainable palm oil then the growers see their efforts being rewarded. At the moment only 52% of the certified sustainable palm oil is being bought by industry. The remainder is sold as conventional palm oil, at loss to the growers. For how much longer will they continue to produce something no one appears to want to buy?

Danger (Return to top)

“The danger with the current level of uptake is if we don’t buy it in Europe the growers will go back to doing what they used to do and sell to India and China,”​ says Andy Green, sustainability sales manager at certification body BM Trada. “The Malaysians won’t certify more plantations until the uptake improves. It’s easy for us to sit in our homes and tell them what to do.”

“There isn’t enough pressure on people,”​ says Webber. “All along the supply chain, people are doing the least they can get away with. And there’s another group waiting for a perfect solution, which is sheer folly. This will never happen. There is no perfect solution.”

In revolutionary style, French consumers and supermarkets Casino and Carrefour opted to boycott palm oil and products bearing the label ‘no palm oil’ have proliferated on retailers’ shelves.

UK nut butter manufacturer Meridian uses an image of an orangutan on its labels alongside the declaration: ‘no palm oil’. The firm said removing it from the recipe resulted in some oil separation but its consumers obviously thought this was a small price to pay. Could such a product ever go mainstream though?

Meanwhile, ingredients manufacturer Naturex has replaced the palm-derived ingredients in its products with non-palm sourced ingredients wherever possible. For example, glycerine from palm has been replaced by a new source of rapeseed-derived glycerine in all its colour formulations. It has also developed a range of natural, emulsified palm-free colours. The main ingredients to replace were emulsifiers such as polysorbate 80 and sucrose esters, medium chain triglycerides as diluent oil, stabilisers (glycerine) and antioxidants. All these ingredients were replaced by alternative emulsifiers such as Arabic gum, modified starches and lecithin.

Naturex business manager, Nathalie Pauleau, said: “Since 2010, our customers are increasing their demands for palm-free natural colours. In 2012 Naturex received four times more requests than in 2011 and 2013 demands are already superior to those received in 2012. Europe, led by the UK, and Australia are the main markets asking for palm-free colour alternatives.”

Problems removing palm oil (Return to top)

However, Naturex admits that palm oil and its derivatives cannot be replaced in all formulations without changing the product’s characteristics.

“In some specific applications, for performance reasons, standard formulations using palm derivatives have to be used or maintained. This explains the increasing requests from the major food actors for RSPO-certified ingredients and additives. One of the key changes in the next few years will be the growing availability of RSPO palm oil on the market to answer the global demand. Greater availability will enable a significant increase in the volume of RSPO- derived ingredients on the market,”​ says Pauleau.

Puratos is making improvers that contain enzymes and no emulsifiers as these contain palm oil derivatives.

Clean-label demands (Return to top)

Puratos’s technical director Christophe Surdiacourt explains: “This is to satisfy increasing demand from our customers for clean-label ingredients. The enzyme-based improvers can have slightly less tolerance than the commonly used emulsifier-based improvers, as they are more flour-and process-sensitive. The improver acts as a seatbelt to secure the baking process.

“Some producers want to get away from palm completely because it’s easier to claim there’s no palm in the product. Some consumers don’t understand what’s sustainable and what isn’t so it’s easier to say it doesn’t contain palm.”

But other oils don’t have palm oil’s high yield, which means they use more land. And palm oil can’t be removed from every recipe without adversely impacting quality. It’s just not that simple. Non-hydrogenated margarines, for example, can’t be made without it.

Surdiacourt adds: “I think the market for palm-free products will grow but the majority of palm will remain although the production of it will become much more sustainable.”

Judith Murdoch, marketing manager of palm processor AAK, emphasises the complexity of the oil, which has 55 different fractionations and has infiltrated our food and drink in so many forms. How can you track the sustainability of a refined derivative that occurs in a tiny amount?

Murdoch says: “Palm oil in a product such as a sausage roll should be fully segregated​ [the highest level certification]. Pastries are easy but once you start moving into cake the inclusions are too numerous. For example, Christmas cake contains 20 palm oil derivatives. Biscuits are also complex: they’ll contain palm oil in the dough or the shell and interesterified blends of palm stearin and palm kernel oil in the cream filling.”

If it’s impossible to remove palm oil from everything we eat and drink, the answer has to be to source more sustainably.

Even the orangutans’ champion, the World Wildlife Fund, agrees that palm oil is here to stay. The group’s palm oil expert, Adam Harrison, says: “Negative campaigns boycotting palm oil aren’t helpful. There’s no point in delivering a strong critical message unless you can offer a way out.”

But manufacturers are not buying the oil that is being produced sustainably. How can we encourage more take-up to motivate growers?

Andy Worrel director of New Britain Oils says: “The best way to get take-up is to get all the different grades and forms in which palm oil comes cost-effectively and sustainably to market. Unfortunately, some of the players in the market have waited for the demand to be seen before making the product available. If there’s demand, supply will be made cost-effectively.”

Industry lead (Return to top)

Industry must take the lead, says the RSPO’s Webber who insists that firms are more powerful than governments as they have a global reach. But it’s easier for the multinationals like Unilever to invest in sustainability. What about the smaller firms, who bemoan ever-decreasing margins and the cost and burden of yet another audit?

Harrison says: “Time is running out. They argue over balance sheets against the future of communities and wildlife. We can’t sit around saying we’ll do something next year.”

Next year is crunch time in terms of meeting retailers’ targets to source produce sustainably by 2015. The message is: get certified to stay in business. BM Trada's Green says: “We see more and more suppliers coming to get certified. Sainsbury, Aldi, Morrisons and M&S – they’re all pushing hard. If you’re not certified next year you won't be able to supply them in 2015.”

Looks like we’re at melting point again.

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