This post was originally published on June 13, 2018 and updated on December 19, 2019.

The experts have spoken. Palm oil is good for our planet and its people as long as it’s produced sustainably. Responsible manufacturers use palm oil that has been certified sustainable, meaning it has been produced in a way that complies with environmental and societal criteria. There are several palm oil certification standards currently in use. This article takes a closer look at two common standards, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO).

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
RSPO was developed by an international team of palm oil producers, traders, investors and nonprofits in 2004. The first shipments of RSPO-certified palm oil were produced in Malaysia and became available in 2008. As of April 2018, 19 percent of the global palm oil supply (or 12.46 million tons) is RSPO certified.

To become RSPO certified, growers must meet a set of environmental and social criteria designed to minimize negative impacts of palm oil production. These includes agreeing not to clear primary forests or areas of significant biodiversity, reducing pesticide use and treating workers according to local and international labor standards.

RSPO has been praised for promoting the growth and use of sustainable palm oil. It has helped educate millions about the sustainability of this important crop. When grown responsibly, palm oil is incredibly land efficient. Of the major crops (oil palm, soybean sunflower and canola), oil palm occupies the least land, but produces the most oil. A single acre of oil palm produces 11 times more oil than soybeans, and 10 times more than sunflower.

RSPO has also been criticized, especially by environmental nonprofits who feel the standards don’t do enough to protect pristine forests or palm oil laborers. The standards don’t address climate protection. Greenpeace research shows RSPO, “is little more than greenwash.” The international organization also recently revealed massive rainforest destruction in Indonesia, allegedly caused by RSPO-certified companies. Some RSPO-member companies even support a EU palm oil ban, which could accelerate deforestation. This is making many environmentalists wonder: Is this certification enough?

Other certifications, such as Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), International Sustainability & Carbon Certification (ISCC) and Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO), have emerged to address additional concerns.

Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil
Malaysia, which produces nearly half of the world’s RSPO-certified palm oil, developed its own certification build upon RSPO’s foundation and meet local needs. The MSPO certification program was developed by the Malaysian government with input from an international team of academic and environmental stakeholders. It’s not aimed at competing with other certification methods, but rather supporting Malaysia’s people, environment and wildlife.

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MSPO certification covers all aspects of palm oil production, from the field to the final product. The standards affirm the country’s commitment to the planet, its people and responsible palm oil production.

  • This nationwide plan helps Malaysia conserve its rainforests.  In 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit, Malaysia pledged to keep at least 50 percent of its land under forest cover. It has kept that promise. A Guardian article on MSPO praised the program’s ability to “create a nationwide conservation landscape which could see the protection of tigers in Peninsular Malaysia, the elephants of Sabah and the orangutans of Sarawak in safe habitats.”
  • This nationwide program also supports Malaysia’s independent oil palm farmers, who found other certification standards onerous. In Malaysia 40 percent of palm-planted lands are tended by these family famers (called smallholders). Policies and financial assistance are in place to help smallholders obtain certification and compete fairly in the global palm oil market.

The MSPO program was launched in 2015 and already has certified more than 42 percent of Malaysia’s palm-planted land.

These stringent standards will soon become mandatory in Malaysia. That’s good news because more than half of the palm oil imported into the U.S is from this eco-focused country. Palm oil is Malaysia’s number one export.

Malaysian Palm Oil Council CEO Dr. Kalyana Sundram explains, “MSPO certification is yet another strong tactic that Malaysia is using to lead the world by example,” said. “We are intentionally paving the way for other countries who rely on the authenticity of their products, such as Italy with its olive oil, to ensure the trade and consumers that their products are pure and responsibly produced.”

Thankfully, most American companies have committed to using certified sustainable palm oil. Consumers may find certification seals on product labels or on manufacturers’ corporate responsibility websites.

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