RSPO intensifies work in India to champion sustainable and climate-resilient palm oil production.

India’s Way Forward in Shaping a Sustainable Palm Oil Future

RSPO intensifies efforts in India for a sustainable, climate-resilient palm oil industry.

Joseph D'Cruz
Joseph D'Cruz

If the events that have unfolded over the past year have shown us anything, it is that the impacts of climate change are already here. Last July, our planet experienced its hottest month in the global temperature record. All across the world, we have seen how an increasingly warming climate is manifested in devastating proportions – from heat waves and wildfires to record-breaking rainfall and droughts, impacting human lives as well as our ecosystems, agriculture and economies.

The outcome scientists have been warning us about for decades is no longer a looming prospect, but today’s stark reality. 

With the window for climate action closing rapidly, sustainability is now an imperative to protect our planet’s future and wellbeing. Action at the highest levels of government is gaining momentum. 

Under the Indian G20 Presidency, the theme ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’ (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam) affirms the high value placed on all life – human, animal, plant, and microorganisms and their interconnectedness on our planet Earth and in the wider universe. Important issues such as food security, climate and energy, development, health and digitalisation were discussed at the summit over two days, and decisions made will determine the future of our people and planet.

The growing consensus on the sustainability imperative has been underscored by India’s commitment to mainstreaming Green and inclusive development through its G20 Presidency and promoting Lifestyles for Sustainable Development (LiFE).

Role of India in a sustainable palm oil future

India remains the world's largest importer of palm oil, having imported a total of 7.9 million MT of palm oil between 2021 to 2022, roughly 4 million MT from Indonesia and 2.8 million MT from Malaysia annually. 

Vegetable oil demand, particularly for palm oil, is forecast to continue growing, driven by the country’s sizable population coupled with increasing urbanisation and rising disposable income levels. India’s palm oil market is expected to reach a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.6% during 2023-2028. This has spurred India to exert greater efforts towards self-reliance, giving it a unique opportunity to position itself as a role model and leader of sustainable palm oil production in the Asian region. India has been making strides to become Atmanirbhar – self-sufficient – to wean itself from dependence on palm oil imports. The government has made significant steps to boost palm oil production, aiming to produce as much as 3 million tonnes of palm oil by 2030. In 2021, the National Mission on Edible Oils – Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) was launched to accelerate production and help increase farmer incomes by incentivising palm oil. 

India’s sustainability journey is very different from other palm oil markets. India’s reliance on palm oil is anchored around food security and improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. However, the projected growth for vegetable oil demand in India amplifies pressure on land and resources both domestically and in Southeast Asia.

As the second largest consumer of vegetable oils, India can take the lead in the transformation towards a clean and green vegetable oil supply chain in line with the ambitions to pursue low carbon, environment friendly and climate-resilient development laid out in the G20 New Delhi Declaration. 

As a leading sustainability organisation in the palm oil sector, in recent months, RSPO  has intensified its work with the Indian government, key industry players and communities, to call for advancing sustainability in India’s palm oil industry. This coincides with RSPO’s latest milestone of reaching 100 members in India, a welcome sign that the country is mobilising efforts to champion sustainable palm oil production and imports.

A way forward for India – Introducing the Jurisdictional Approach (JA)  

How can RSPO and India seize the opportunities at hand to pave the way for a sustainable palm oil future? We see a potential next stage for India in exploring a Jurisdictional Approach (JA) as part of its implementation of the NMEO-OP.

Jurisdictional Approaches are part of RSPO’s efforts to scale sustainable palm oil production, through close engagement with local and international governments, industry players, small farmers and communities. This involves planning and managing palm oil production at the jurisdictional level, using a model of jurisdictional landscape development. The key innovation of this landscape approach is that sustainability issues are addressed at a geographical rather than only at the farm or plantation level – moving from ‘sustainable products’ to ‘sustainable geographies’ defined by jurisdiction, or an area bounded by natural borders.

In less than a decade, a number of pilot projects have already been implemented, with the Sabah State government of Malaysia being the first to pledge its commitment to this approach in 2015. This was followed by Seruyan, Central Kalimantan in Indonesia and Ecuador in 2017. The RSPO is providing technical advisory to these jurisdictions, guiding them to fulfill their commitment to uphold the RSPO Standards throughout the JA process, and later on through certification. Several countries in Africa, under the Marrakesh Declaration, have also pledged towards the production of sustainable palm oil at national level.

The JA approach allows local stakeholders to collaborate with their governments, providing an ideal path towards sustainability and the implementation of best management practices, while curbing the negative impacts of unsustainable practices. This approach is also a significant step towards collaboratively working to improve the livelihoods of small-scale farmers, ensuring food security by prioritising land use, and conserving important forest areas for biodiversity and environment. This collective approach enables solving sustainability problems at the grassroots level, optimising the use of resources and sharing expertise within the jurisdiction. 

In light of the significant progress made on the Jurisdictional Approach, we call on key stakeholders of India's palm oil industry, as well as government actors at state and local level to explore the JA as a sustainable way forward, especially at this nascent stage of palm oil production in the country. While it is commendable that some safeguards around sustainability risks are included in the NMEO-OP, now is an ideal time to identify such risks across the different regions with local stakeholders, to ensure the implementation of the NMEO-OP is sustainable right from the start.

A global partnership to make palm oil sustainable

Today, 20% of global palm oil production is RSPO Certified,  set against rigorous standards through RSPO’s multistakeholder process, positively impacting the lives and livelihoods of smallholders, workers and local communities across the world. These initiatives and accomplishments effectively demonstrate how sustainability and economic prosperity are not a zero-sum scenario.

While we celebrate these achievements, there is so much more work to be done, especially in a sustainability landscape that grows more challenging by the day. The climate emergency is an everyday reality that we can no longer ignore. Yet climate targets, food security and socio-economic development will not be reached without collective and innovative action from the food and agriculture system, including the palm oil industry.

Concerted and collaborative action among the private sector, civil society and governments is more urgent than ever, to work on new and effective solutions to tackle the most serious and long-term global threats. The RSPO multi-stakeholder process has proven, through rigour and scale, that by working together, the palm oil ecosystem can be a formidable force for positive change. 

RSPO seeks to strengthen our partnerships and alliances, in order to amplify our successes and show how sustainable palm production can effectively contribute to net zero emissions, and that well-managed, regenerative oil palm agriculture can be a crucial contributor to biodiversity conservation and the upliftment of rural communities across the developing world.

As one of the largest producers and consumers of palm oil, the Global South can play a leadership role in the transformation of global palm oil production. For billions of people in the global south, palm oil is the oil of choice and India’s leadership and commitment to sustainability, reflected in a successful G20 summit and its G20 Declaration proves that India is a formidable force in the sustainable transformation of the global palm oil landscape and climate crisis.

Through our local partnerships in India, which are the bedrock of our work, we can galvanise the critical forces needed to create an important multi-stakeholder platform to increase awareness and promote sustainable palm oil in this region, and become a part of the solution to fight climate change.

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