Delegates came from Cargill, Unilever, Sime Derby, Wilmar, Felda Global Ventures and a range of other major companies. The 30-odd seminars over the two days featured speakers from growers, buyers, manufacturers, the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, the UN Food and Agriculture Programme, the European Palm Oil Alliance, and the US Department of Agriculture.
Two subjects dominated the seminars: the price of palm oil, which has plummeted in recent months, and sustainability.
As one of the speakers pointed out, world population is expected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050, this will require a 70% increase in food production. Export of sugar will have to double, export of cereals and edible oils will have to triple. The rest of her talk outlined the latest research into improving yield and productivity, and reducing the environmental ‘bioburden’.
The level of detail that the speakers went into when discussing their environmental responsibilities suggested this was far more then simply paying lip-service to the issues. I’ll be covering what the various speakers said in the Topics section of this site, but it was a fascinating insight into what is happening within the palm oil industry. The level of self-criticism was unexpected. M R Chandran, an advisor to the Executive Board of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, had the air of a headmaster about him as he listed the industry’s crimes and outlined the benchmarks for moving towards sustainability. He concluded his talk with the statement: ‘Compromise on the delivery of sustainable palm oil is not an option!’
What most concerned many of the speakers was the amount of disinformation that is spread about palm oil. The European Palm Oil Alliance presented research on how palm oil is perceived across different EU countries. In the UK, Germany, and Sweden, sustainability is the key concern, while in France, Belgium, and Norway health dominates the debate and activists in those countries have been very successful in convincing consumers that palm oil is bad for them. None of the major NGOs support the claims about health (principally because the science says the exact opposite), but the industry appears to be at something of a loss as to how to deal with the spread of these ideas.
Not everyone can spend two days listening to seminars on the subject (or would want to: what I now know about tocotrienols and carotenoids will only ever be useful if they come out with Phytonutrient Trivial Pursuit), but I learned a great deal more about palm oil this week than I have in months of reading the online arguments.
It’s a shame an event like POTS isn’t broadcast live online so other stakeholders can see what is being done within the industry (I was told that the talks will be available on YouTube at some point). There was absolutely nothing said during any of the talks that the industry wouldn’t want in the public domain. In fact, if I worked for the palm oil industry I’d want it shouted from the rooftops. Sadly the $400 entry fee would have deterred even the most curious consumer.
The industry is far from perfect, but from what I saw this week there is the desire to see greater sustainability from growers, governments and particularly from manufacturers, and as 2015 approaches, they can see that People, Planet & Profit is a workable model for the industry.
The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil is holding its annual meeting here in Kuala Lumpur on the 17th November and I’m sure I’ll learn a great deal there too, but tickets to the RSPO meeting are even more expensive than POTS. When so much of the criticism about how both the industry and the NGOs operate is about transparency, both sides would benefit hugely from consumers being able to see what they discuss behind closed doors.