Agribusiness giant Cargill plans to only offer palm oil -- an ingredient in Girl Scout cookies and numerous other foods -- that is certified sustainable in select countries by 2015 and worldwide by 2020.
Palm oil production has led to deforestation, damage to animal habitats and greenhouse gas emissions as farms expand to meet high demand for the ingredient, which is used in processed foods, baked goods, candies, biofuels and more.
Cargill aims to have all of the palm oil it sells in Europe, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand be certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) within the next four years. Cargill will also count palm oil from smallholder farmers in meeting it goal. Cargill then plans for all palm oil sold in China, India and elsewhere to be RSPO-certified by 2020.
The first goal, however, excludes palm kernel oil, which is produced from the same oil palm trees that palm oil comes from and is used in food products, soaps and other goods.
The Rainforest Action Network, which has been dogging Cargill about its palm oil use, says that while the goals are a good start, the deadlines are too far away, RSPO certification is weak and palm kernel oil shouldn't be left out.
"Waiting until 2020 for a global commitment around certified sustainable palm oil is just waiting too long. Too much is at stake," said Ashley Schaeffer, the group's rainforest agribusiness campaigner.
Cargill says, though, that it's trying to be realistic with its goals, and is aiming for achievable targets. "We recognize the volumes of RSPO certified palm oil are increasing every year, however, we cannot confidently estimate that we will have access to enough certified palm products to meet all our palm product requirements by 2015," said Susan Eich, Cargill's director of corporate responsibility communications. "Markets in each major region around the world (Europe, North America, Asia) are at different stages of development for the demand and uptake of sustainable palm oil products."
Schaeffer also said the Rainforest Action Network is concerned about shortcomings in the RSPO, namely that it does not take into account all issues around greenhouse gas emissions and that its grievance processes has not been extensively tested, making it "toothless."
"Right now Cargill is putting all of their eggs in the RSPO basket, and it's riddled with holes," she said. "We can't trust that RSPO is indeed enforcing their principles and criteria."
Issues covered by the RSPO certification criteria [PDF] range among soil fertility, erosion, water quality and availability, pesticides, endangered species and waste.
As for palm kernel oil, most of the RSPO's work has focused specifically on palm oil, and palm kernel oil has an entirely different supply chain once it's extracted from the oil palm tree, meaning sustainable palm kernel oil needs some of its own systems, certification and infrastructure.
In addition, much less palm kernel oil than palm oil is extracted from oil palm trees. "The volumes of RSPO certified sustainable palm kernel oil currently available at the end of the supply chain for use by manufacturers are much smaller than certified sustainable palm oil," Eich said.
Cargill already offers some RSPO-certified palm oil, but was unable to provide exact figures on how much of the palm oil it sells is currently certified, and how much needs to be converted to meet its goals. One of the company's two oil palm plantations in Indonesia, and its refineries in Europe, Malaysia, the United States and Australia have been certified by the RSPO. The company, which has been working with the World Wildlife Fund on its palm oil efforts, says it is encouraging its suppliers to join the RSPO and have their plantations certified.
Palm nuts image CC-licensed by oneVillage Initiative/Flickr