Palm Oil Monitor Weekly Update – 15th October 2018

Nestle: Who Needs Greenpeace?

Greenpeace’s action against Wilmar and other firms has highlighted the work being undertaken by Nestle and The Forest Trust in conjunction with Airbus.

The ‘Starling’ program that the three entities have put together relies on decades of historical satellite imaging and new monitoring data. Theoretically, in combination with better palm oil traceability data, the companies should be able to provide Nestle with something resembling real-time deforestation data that they can track to suppliers.

This is quite a remarkable development for a company like Nestle. Nestle has been particularly sensitive to reputational risks since the 1970s, when its marketing strategies for milk prompted a worldwide boycott movement and policy changes at the World Health Organization.

It’s now nearly a decade since Greenpeace launched a particularly graphic campaign against Nestle’s palm sourcing policies, which implied that eating a Nestle chocolate bar was equivalent to eating a dead orang-utan.

Nestle changed its sourcing policies, in line with Greenpeace demands. But Nestle also plays a long game. It’s now reasonably clear that they were seeking a long-term solution to their problem – no deforestation within their supply chain — that they could consider both technically robust and within their control.

Greenpeace, however, has only been critical of the Nestle announcement. This is a new, tech-based solution to a problem that Greenpeace highlighted.

Why the objections? Because it takes Greenpeace out of the loop.

The entire strategy for Greenpeace on palm oil relies on ‘gotcha’ moments. It comprises:

  • Undertaking a ‘secret’ investigation using exclusive data and analysis;
  • Publishing this data through its own platforms or other media channels;
  • Confronting upstream companies with the new data – usually through a media stunt of some kind;
  • Calling for a particular action.

When companies have better data, there is no ‘gotcha’ moment.  It also reduces Greenpeace’s ability to play loose with the truth. This is one of the reasons Greenpeace campaigners have a field day in developing countries, where data is poor, governance is weak and transparency is poor: it is a data vacuum.  Nestle looks to be changing that equation.

The EU Denies A Ban, Again

EU officials have been forced to deny – again – that the trading bloc is planning to ban imports of palm oil for the EU’s renewable fuel programs.

The denial was made by the EU’s head of ECOWAS and Nigerian Co-operation, Kurt Cornelis during a sensitisation workshop about the proposed ban of palm oil importation to the EU.

The workshop was organised by the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission (NIPC).The NIPC has been informed by officials that the EU had intended to ban palm oil imports for its renewable programs.

This is an entirely reasonable assumption given the European Parliament’s moves to phase out palm oil in the past, and the public statements from many MEPs that this effort will continue.

Palm oil producers in Nigeria and across sub-Saharan Africa are well aware of this. Companies like SOCFIN and SIFCA have a good understanding of European policy – a good chunk of the investment in Africa is from Europe, and most exports go to EU markets.  Unlike their Southeast Asian counterparts, they don’t have the luxury of large established export markets in India and China.

For this reason, they also have an understanding of how EU policy can creep. After all, it was farmers from the Cote d’Ivoire that launched action against anti-palm oil labels in France.

What this indicates – as with the EU Ambassador to Indonesia’s comments last week – is that the EU very much needs to clarify its position, and as soon as possible.

Developing countries assumed they were facing a palm oil ban; they are then told this isn’t the case; but it’s quite evident from the final text of the RED that a palm-based biofuel freeze and phase-out might start occurring as soon as February.

In which case, EU officials saying, ‘there’s no ban on palm oil’ will sound even more ridiculous.

Malaysia has asked the EU repeatedly at the WTO for drafts of any legislation. Thus far they haven’t responded.

To Europeans this might be bureaucracy at work, but to anyone outside of Brussels, the contradictions and silence come across as arrogance at best, and outright duplicity at worst.

Kok Calls Out EU’s Shifting Goalposts 

New Malaysian Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok has called out the anti-palm lobby in the European Union – and not just campaigners.

Minister Kok called out the clear hypocrisy between the EU’s stated political position on sustainable development and its regulatory trade barriers for developing country exports.

At a recent sustainability conference in Spain, she said “the EU should assist developing countries achieve the SDGs instead of imposing onerous rules and policies that undermine their efforts.”

Kok also implied that the mixed messages could lead to perverse outcomes: “EU’s anti-palm oil action is telling palm oil producing countries that investing in sustainability does not pay off and is futile. Malaysia has taken various efforts to invest in sustainability and comply with sustainable practices.”

This has to some extent been the case with sustainability certification. The case was made when certification schemes started that there would be a clear premium for certified product. This hasn’t materialised in the way it was imagined. Rather, the costs have been borne by producers; purchasers and consumers are generally not willing to pay.

But by continuing to single out palm oil – after palm exports complied with the EU’s sustainability criteria using RSPO-RED and ISCC – the EU is signalling that it will change the compliance rules as it sees fit.

In both cases, the rewards for complying with tighter requirements – and not necessarily better requirements – are not there. Minister Kok is asking a question that we know that many palm exporters ask constantly: can Europe really be trusted?

If You Thought Palm Was Tough…

CIFOR, one of the world’s leading forestry institutions, has put together a new report outlining the problems identifying soy-based deforestation.

The big problem, according to the report authors, is that 80 per cent of the world’s soybean crop is fed to animals, which is then sold to customers. It is for this reason that the ‘deforestation footprint’ in exported meat products is so high.

More than half of Brazil’s soybean meal exports go to Europe – this is basically used for animal feed.

But it’s the beef-soybean nexus that makes things even more complicated in a country like Brazil, particularly when it comes to soybean certification. Forest is often cleared for animal pasture; but then the land-use shifts to soybean. In this scenario, the soybean can be considered ‘deforestation free’ – because it wasn’t the soybean farmers that cleared the land.

The other problem for soybean is that certification covers no more than 4 per cent of global production: it is entirely niche. This means that, like FairTrade, its market penetration is limited and will be further hindered by the large proportion of soybean that goes to animal feed markets.  Adding to this is that soybean rarely has a ‘consumer’ face.

Beef already has some limited pressures on it in niche markets from those who demand grass-fed beef, hormone-free or no meat at all. Consider the complicated nature of asking consumers to demand that their meat is only fed deforestation-free soy.

It’s no wonder that activists picked on palm oil instead.

But it’s also absurd. Soy has deforestation footprint that is double palm oil’s. Beef’s deforestation footprint is ten times as big.

The situation is about to get more complicated, too. The ongoing trade dispute between China and the US has prompted China to put a 25 per cent tariff on US soybeans. Prices for exported soybeans are high – so there may be a new incentive for Brazilian farmers to clear and plant more land.