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Environment

Palm Oil Isn't the Problem — Where It's Planted Is, Expert Says

By Michael Taylor

YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia, April 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Buyers are wrong to remove palm oil from their products and should instead focus on working with sustainability schemes and smallholder farmers, an Indonesia-based conservation organisation said on Tuesday.

British supermarket chain Iceland said earlier this month that it would remove palm oil from its own-brand food by the end of 2018 as part of efforts to stem deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia and help species under threat of extinction.

"It is just the latest fashion that buying palm oil is a bad idea," said Robert Nasi, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Much better is for buyers and consumers to work with sustainability bodies and schemes, like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and then strengthen those standards, Nasi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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The managing director at Iceland, which trades from 900 stores and which specializes in frozen food, said the company did not believe there was such a thing as sustainable palm oil available to retailers.

Palm oil is used in a wide range of food and household products, from biscuits, ice-cream and chocolate spreads to soaps and cosmetics, as well as in biofuels.

"The main issue is not palm oil - it is where it is planted," said Nasi, speaking on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Rainforest Summit in Yogyakarta, on the Indonesian island of Java.

Palm trees produce four to 10 times more oil than other vegetable oil crops per unit of cultivated land.

Home to the world's third-largest tropical forests, Indonesia is also the biggest palm oil producer. Environmentalists blame much of the forest destruction on land clearance for the crop.

There are more than 2 million smallholders in Malaysia and Indonesia - the two countries that dominate the world's supply of the vegetable oil.

These farmers produce about 40 percent of palm oil from those two countries, but suffer low productivity and are often blamed for unsustainable farming practices like slash and burn forest clearing and peatland destruction.

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Big palm buyers like Nestle, Unilever and Procter & Gamble run small schemes that try and improve sustainability among smallholders, and conference officials backed such efforts.

"Working with the palm oil producers is important ... to ensure that Indonesia can increase the production but without expanding into the forest," said Christoffer Gronstad, a climate change and forest expert at the Norwegian Embassy in Indonesia.

Norway and Indonesia signed a bilateral agreement in 2010 to tackle deforestation and boost economic development.

(Reporting by Michael Taylor, Editing by Jared Ferrie. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)