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First Palm Oil Barometer challenges negative public perception

The first global Palm Oil Barometer by Solidaridad and smallholder producer organizations in Asia, Africa and Latin America, gives a new perspective on the largely negative public debate around palm oil in western countries. 

This controversial crop presents more issues and opportunities than many people realize.

While smallholder palm oil farmers risk living in poverty, the 282-billion-dollar palm oil industry creates huge profits for companies. 

The pivotal role of smallholders in the palm oil sector, currently contributing to around 30% of global production, is often overlooked in the sustainability agenda, as policies tend to focus on large industrial plantations. 

And with their contribution to palm oil production expected to grow, smallholders play an increasingly central role in rural economic development and preserving biodiversity. 

With palm oil as a crucial ingredient in the diet of the poorest people on earth, and its widespread presence in products like margarine, shampoo and biodiesel, it’s here to stay. 

Supply chain-wide smallholder inclusion is crucial for sustainable palm oil production.

Deforestation and poverty are interlinked Palm oil production figures prominently in the media as a cause of deforestation, biodiversity loss and climate change. 

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However, by isolating its impact on the environment from the poverty crisis, to which it is directly linked, it’s easy to overlook the vital role smallholders play in palm oil production.

Although the image of large companies growing vast expanses of oil palms as a monoculture holds true, more than three million smallholders and their families produce roughly 30 percent of the world’s palm oil. 

And a multitude of workers find jobs in oil palm production. 

In Indonesia alone, there are around 16 million workers in the palm oil sector, of which the majority is employed by smallholders. 

The contribution of smallholders in the overall supply of palm oil is only expected to increase, as industrial-scale companies are forced to limit expansion due to zero-deforestation commitments.

Shatadru Chattopadhayay, managing director Solidaridad Asia reflects: “Smallholders produce not even 2% of certified sustainable palm oil on the market while contributing 30% of the world’s supply. Governments and businesses must make smallholder inclusion part of their sustainability criteria.”

In the multi-billion dollar palm oil industry, smallholder farmers do not get their fair share

Smallholders generated USD 17 billion of the palm oil industry’s USD 282 billion turnovers in 2020, yet many did not earn enough to cover their families’ essential living costs. 

Despite this, many smallholders prefer growing oil palm to other crops, like rubber or coffee, because they earn a higher and more consistent income throughout the year. 

For many smallholder farmers growing oil palm gives them better prospects and alleviates poverty.

Multiple factors can influence a farm’s profitability, including its size, labor and fertilizer costs, market access, and prices.

Volatile market prices squeeze smallholder margins that are already narrow. “It’s getting more and more difficult for farmers with all these changes in the prices. 

Some feel as if 50 percent of their livelihood has been lost as the prices of the fresh fruit bunches have been slashed and, at the same time, the price of fertilizers and pesticides have risen by more than 100 percent” said Valens Andi, head of a farmers’ cooperative in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, to Al-Jazeera. 

Faced with these precarious conditions many smallholders are unable to invest in farm-level innovations or adhere to sustainability standards.

By 2030 Indonesian smallholder plantations will account for around 60 percent of the country’s oil palm area. Supporting these smallholders to produce sustainably will be a key challenge in the coming years.

Fair value distribution is at the heart of sustainable palm oil production

While smallholders struggle to make ends meet, at the other end of the chain food manufacturers, consumer goods companies and retail take 66 percent of the gross profits on palm oil in food, household, and body care products. 

The focus on cost-cutting to optimize profits contrasts starkly with individual companies’ sustainability commitments, as well as the global climate and UN’s Sustainable Development Goal agendas. 

The concern is that global palm oil buyers show little willingness to compensate small producers for operating sustainably, for example, by paying a fair price and investing in long-term trading relationships. 

A fairer value and risk distribution across the palm oil value chain enables farmers to both produce sustainably and make an income that sustains their family’s livelihood. –Press release

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The New Dawn is Liberia’s Truly Independent Newspaper Published by Searchlight Communications Inc. Established on November 16, 2009, with its first hard copy publication on January 22, 2010. The office is located on UN Drive in Monrovia Liberia. The New Dawn is bilingual (both English & French).
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