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As India takes steps to increase edible oil production, sustainable practices such as controlling deforestation while boosting palm oil production will help it meet its Paris Climate Agreement pledges

Harvested oil palm fruits at a plantation in southern India (Photo by Alamy)

Harvested oil palm fruits at a plantation in southern India (Photo by Alamy)

The edible oil industry is poised for a transformation in India. The Indian government wants to increase the production of edible oils in line with its approach of aatmanirbharta (self-reliance). India is the largest importer of palm oil in the world; increasing domestic production will reduce its dependence on imports.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stressed on the edible oil sector on several occasions. In February, he noted that India imports edible oil worth around INR 650 billion (USD 8.93 billion) every year.

“It can be stopped,” he had said at a meeting of Niti Aayog, the government’s think tank. “This money can go into the accounts of farmers. For this, we will have to formulate plans. There are many agricultural products that farmers can produce not only for the country but the world. For this, it is essential that all states formulate their strategy for agro-climatic regional planning and help farmers accordingly.”

This approach provides an opportunity for sustainable palm oil production in India. Sustainability should be embedded from the very beginning of the production line in the new plantations as per agro-climatic regional planning.

The existing oil palm plantations that have been in India for over 20-30 years also must make an effort to improve their sustainable agriculture practices. All plantations need to adopt best practices recommended by the Indian Institute of Oil Palm Research and adopt sustainability standards like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) that focuses on environmental and social aspects like impact on water tables, farmers’ welfare and market connectivity.

Sustainable practices

RSPO certification is an important step in the move towards making sustainable palm oil production the norm. The certification standard has strict criteria including no deforestation, no use of fire, no destruction of endangered species’ habitats, no new planting on peat and no exploitation.

RSPO principles and criteria include third party certification, a system of accreditation for certification bodies, supply chain certification to the end user, traceability provided via the PalmTrace system, and an open and transparent grievance mechanism.

These mandatory requirements are in place to protect primary and secondary forests, and to ensure the habitats of wildlife are not harmed, thus creating a space where palm oil agriculture and the environment can co-exist.

RSPO has already begun its work in India. Two private mills and one state government mill in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have been trained in RSPO Independent Smallholder Standard (RISS). A training programme for oil palm farmers has been initiated keeping in mind state laws and local environmental and social realities.

The development of the overall process of the smallholder standard has been guided by the need to strike a balance between promoting greater inclusion of smallholders and ensuring that core sustainability requirements are upheld.

Through a simplified approach to certification, RISS presents an easy entry for smallholders into the RSPO certification system through a phased process of reaching and verifying compliance.

Some 50,000-60,000 farmers in India depend on oil palm for their livelihood. RSPO wants to support more farmers to become certified in order to produce more oil using less land, to improve livelihoods and reduce the risk of land conversion, which threatens forest and biodiversity.

Support for smallholder farmers

In addition to learning the best management practices, smallholders who are certified to produce sustainable palm oil gain improved access to markets. In an effort to support and encourage smallholders to achieve certification, RSPO provides funding to smallholders through its Smallholder Support Fund.

Besides the production of sustainable palm oil, RSPO also offers alternatives for the market to support the production of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO). As an independent smallholder, trading in RSPO credits provides direct access to the sustainable palm oil market through the online PalmTrace platform.

More widespread use of sustainability standards and tools would benefit all stakeholders. Some consumer goods firms, mills and refiners are already supportive of CSPO made in India.

“We have a responsibility to ensure that raw materials are being sourced sustainably. We need to build awareness within our value chains for the demand of sustainable palm oil,” said Bhawna Yadav, regional social and human rights manager (South Asia and ASEAN) at Reckitt Benckiser (maker of Dettol products). “To do this we need to engage more with palm oil sourcing colleagues in procurement and finance, as they play a critical part in getting consensus from within the company to create the demand for sustainable palm oil. It is not just about responsible sourcing and production, but also about responsible consumption.”

Ubiquitous palm oil

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), more than 50% of products we use everyday have palm oil or its derivatives and fractions.

India’s agriculture ministry has recently proposed a budget of INR 190 billion (USD 2.61 billion) for the national mission on edible oil. The mission entails a five-year plan aimed at achieving self-sufficiency in production of cooking oil while cutting down on imports. Local production may also ease the prices of cooking oil.

We import around 15 million tonnes of cooking oil, which caters to 70% of our annual requirement of 23 million tonnes,” a ministry official said. “In the next five years, we are aiming at zero import, which will not only help the domestic oil industry but also ensure availability of cooking oil to consumers at economical cost.” 

There is now a window for India palm oil to become more sustainable, with consensus at different levels, from farmers to refiners, buyers, retailers and consumers. Sustainable palm oil is necessary. It’s not just a “good to have” option, but should be embedded into our production and consumption patterns, making India a global leader in sustainability practices. It will also help us meeting our 2015 Paris climate agreement targets.

Kamal Prakash Seth is Country Head – India and Deputy Director – Market Transformation, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.


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