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Challenging the beliefs of a conventional environmentalist

Posted: Jan 29, 2019 5 minute read Cheryl Tan

I am what you would expect from a university student who chose to dedicate her tertiary education to geography. I marvel at the beauty of the environment we live in every day and swear to uphold the responsibility of being an informed and environmentally conscious consumer. Thus, it might seem odd when I accepted an internship at Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), one of the ‘Big 4’ in the notorious palm oil industry.

Truth be told, I was sceptical about palm oil. After all, how sustainable can palm oil actually be? These companies are the commercial juggernauts of their industry and if my prior knowledge from a mixture of environmental NGOs and sustainability die-hards have anything to say about it, it is that they are in prime positions to exploit for profits.

So, with my head full of conflicting information, I took the leap of faith and I am glad that my preconceived notions about this industry have been proven wrong.

Solutions are not as clear-cut as some would like us to believe

One of my very first assignments in GAR was to familiarise myself with the Iceland Foods case, the UK-based supermarket chain which had banned palm oil in their own-brand products. At first, I empathised with the decision – I could see why a company would not want a seemingly environmentally-harmful product in their goods. However, after research, I came to realise that unfortunately, environmental issues are often not as easy as they seem. As much as some parties might attempt to oversimplify it, it isn’t always a clear-cut case of the “good guys versus bad guys”. Just like the biodiversity we try to protect, the sheer complexity of this interwoven supply chain blurs the culprits and victims.

Iceland’s Christmas advertisement on boycotting palm oil
Iceland’s Christmas advertisement on boycotting palm oil.

For example, smallholders will feel the greatest impact if we apply this ban throughout our products. Contrary to what many believe, the palm oil industry is not just made of large companies – smallholders actually account for more than 40 percent of total palm oil production. If we were to remove palm oil completely, 16 million workers that the palm oil sector employs, from farmers to engineers, will find themselves out of a job to feed their families. The economic ramifications would indeed be devastating, especially to the smallholders who rely on this sector to stay financially afloat.

Misdan, a Community Leader and Chairman of the Smallholder Cooperative
Misdan, a Community Leader and Chairman of the Smallholder Cooperative, is responsible for over 350 cooperative members (farmers) and helps them increase their yield

In fact, blacklisting this omnipresent ingredient will not only not stop the environmental degradation, but will also force companies to turn to other vegetable oils as replacements, vegetable oils such as rapeseed and soybean oil which are far less efficient in terms of yield per hectare than palm oil. So it turns out, banning palm oil will harm the very cause we are rallying to avoid!

Palm oil is actually the most efficient vegetable oil
Palm oil is actually the most efficient vegetable oil by yield per hectare. Source: European Commission Report 2018.

Not only that, boycotting palm oil in this scenario actually harms the very companies trying to address sustainability concerns. After all, where is the incentive to improve practices if markets don’t support sustainable production through buying from those who are producing responsibly? These are only some of the reasons why although a blanket ban on palm oil has the best of intentions, the consequences should prompt us to find more effective and nuanced solutions to this vastly complex issue.

Unfortunately, not many would have dug as deep as I have to educate themselves on the potential impacts of that decision. This leads to widespread misinformation which manifests and grows, especially in the age of social media. As consumers, the responsibility of being informed falls on us but producers also need to ensure accessibility of information for us to make an informed choice. Only when we are educated about the companies’ practices and do not sway towards popular environmental or social fads, can we truly exercise our free and informed decisions as consumers.

Sustainability means so much more

Most people automatically associate ‘sustainability’ with the usual green initiatives like no deforestation, no slashing-and-burning, no hunting of endangered wildlife, and so on. Initiatives that I am sure we have heard countless environmental NGOs advocate for. However, there is more to sustainability than just preserving the beauty of nature.

From increasing accessibility to education to promoting economic sustainability beyond palm oil, I have learned of aspects of farming that conventional advocates for sustainability might not often talk about. Yet, these very aspects are just as important for the continuous, holistic viability of development.

Participants of the Alternative Livelihood Programme
Participants of the Alternative Livelihood Programme that educates farmers on the methods of diversifying their source of income.

In fact, one quick scan of GAR Social and Environmental Policy (GSEP) would tell you exactly that! From the name alone, GSEP takes care of both the forests and communities, ensuring that this ‘sustainability’ buzzword does not end up neglecting key stakeholders in our supply chain. Not only that, transparency and traceability are also crucial aspects of sustainability that make sure what has been put on paper is actualised on the ground.

GAR has achieved 100% Traceability to Plantation (TTP) to all owned mills
GAR has achieved 100% Traceability to Plantation (TTP) to all owned mills and plans to extend this to third-party mills and suppliers by end-2020.

The GSEP is decidedly comprehensive, which is a conclusion I have reached far before entering the company as an intern. As a matter of fact, under the Young SDG Leaders Award, my team and I were tasked to improve on GAR’s current sustainability policies. So it came as a delightful surprise when I had the opportunity to work on it again!

The GAR Sustainability team with the Young SDG Leaders Award group
The GAR Sustainability team with the Young SDG Leaders Award group

Further delving into the clauses and the principles that guide them left me with a newfound appreciation for the work that goes into sustainability policies. Don’t get me wrong, GSEP is by no means perfect, but these policies are constantly being reviewed and improved on as GAR strives to be one step ahead of the industry.

The short month with GAR so far has been eye-opening for me, challenging my preconceived notions about the palm oil industry and even sustainability as a whole. Perhaps we should step out of one’s comfort zone once in a while, to introduce a fresh new perspective for some claustrophobically held beliefs. Who knows? The lessons you will learn might just pleasantly surprise you like mine did.

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