Opinion

India’s move towards sustainable palm oil usage

Robert Hii | Updated on June 08, 2021

India can learn from the success stories of Malaysia and Indonesia in palm cultivation   -  RAO GN

The country’s push for oil palm cultivation to achieve self-sufficiency in vegetable oils is a step in the right direction

With the entire world reeling under the pandemic and people adjusting their day-to-day lives with various degrees of restrictions across the globe, talking about World Environment Day and the restoration of ecosystems might sound a bit off the track. Yet, as the world struggles to contain SARS-CoV-2, its suspected transmission from wild animals to humans is a reminder of the inextricable link between the health of nature and humans.

Various studies on global biodiversity in recent years have warned of an alarming threat to flora and fauna which pose a direct threat to the well-being of humans worldwide. As nations pledge to reduce their carbon and ecological footprint to prevent future disasters, the clout of the Indian consumer to preserve the natural environment must be recognised.

India’s heft

As one of the most populous countries in the world with a surging middle-class population, India’s influence on global markets is bound to increase this decade. In 2019, before the pandemic up-ended the world, India spent $480 billion on imports making it one of the most important markets for countries that sell to India.

Notable within its top imports is organic chemicals for agriculture and edible oils. Recent reports on edible oils shows that the country needs 25 million tonnes of edible oils to meet the requirements of its citizens. Out of the total requirement, only 40 per cent is produced domestically from primary and secondary sources with the remaining 60 per cent is met through import.

As an agricultural powerhouse where 60 per cent of India’s population relies on agriculture, it makes complete sense for India to focus on being self reliant on vegetable oils through the Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative.

The plans for self reliance have identified oil palm as the best crop towards achieving this. This news has met with some criticism that palm oil expansion will threaten its forests and natural environment based on the palm oil experience from Indonesia and Malaysia.

This is fear-mongering and click bait tactics employed by some sections that is the bane of the palm oil industry.

If there is anything for India to learn from the palm oil experience of its neighbouring countries, it is that palm oil cultivation in India is the best recourse for self reliance in vegetable oils. Professor Ashok Vishandass at the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA) in his co-written article nails the environmental issue by comparing palm oil to other vegetable oil crops grown in India.

“Detailed analysis reveals that 4 million MT of traditional oils is being produced in the country by using 15.80 million hectares of land. This much quantity of palm oil could be produced from just 1 million hectares.”

The rebounding population of India’s tigers would not survive if the country were to look at other oilseeds crops for self reliance.

Learning from neighbours

Professor Vishandass’s opinion has concrete backing in the success stories from Indonesia and Malaysia, two countries that produce 85 per cent of the world’s palm oil. These success stories from the two countries are worth noting.

* The global cultivation of palm oil uses only 10 per cent of farmlands dedicated to oilseeds production yet accounts for 35 per cent of the global volume for all vegetable oils.

* Palm oil is a major source of export revenue for producing countries as the global demand for vegetable oils rises.

* Most relevant to India is in the potential of palm oil to improve the livelihoods of farmers through its consistent yield once the crop matures.

* This is a crop that any farmer can grow without the need for big capital investments to buy land and heavy machinery. The dominant presence of small farmers in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand which number over 3 million farmers will attest to that.

* Both countries can lay strong claims to the preservation of forests and biodiversity in comparison to countries that export other edible oils to India.

Safeguarding the environment

As the palm oil industries mature in Indonesia and Malaysia, both countries have taken bold steps to ensure its sustainability. Malaysia has put a cap on its land-use at 6.5 million hectares. Indonesia has declared a moratorium on new palm oil developments and is reviewing licenses that were issued previously to make sure their environmental impact is not overly heavy.

To prove the sustainability of their palm oil production, Malaysia and Indonesia have created mandatory certification schemes in the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) and Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) respectively to meet the demands of their buyers.

There is a wealth of knowledge that India can tap into from the knowledge of the MSPO and ISPO to make its domestic palm oil production sustainable.

India’s initiative

India’s initiative to develop its own standards for sustainable palm oil based on Indian laws, practices and market realities with an alignment to global sustainability principles is a great step forward towards protecting Indian biodiversity as domestic cultivation expands.

The initiative, Indian Palm Oil Sustainability framework (IPOS) which was created for the Indian palm oil industry by Indian palm oil stakeholders includes The Solvent Extractors' Association of India (SEA) and the Society for Promotion of Oil Palm Research and Development as well as global non-profit Solidaridad.

The on-going engagement of IPOS with the MSPO and ISPO bodes well for the natural environment in India. The palm oil experience from Indonesia and Malaysia gives firm evidence that when it comes to producing an edible oil domestically, India will not have to choose between forex loss or forest loss. India can protect both as its domestic palm oil production increases to meet local needs.

Even as India’s palm oil cultivation grows, one can only hope on this World Environment Day that India will throw the heft of its market into ensuring that all its imports are as sustainable as palm oil.

The writer is a global expert on sustainability issues and founder of CSPO Watch, keeping an eye on the palm oil industry in South East Asia with a focus on sustainable palm oil.

Published on June 08, 2021

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