What are the Benefits of Sustainable Palm Oil?

14 May 2021

Authors: Lauriane CHARDOT and Janice Ser Huay LEE

Palm oil is indispensable to us but it is associated with environmental and social problems, such as land conflicts, deforestation, and haze. Does certifying palm oil help alleviate some of these problems?

A team led by Assistant Professor Janice Lee, a Principal Investigator at the Earth Observatory of Singapore, recently published a study in Environmental Research Letters presenting the impacts of palm oil certification on the environment and the development of Indonesia.

Assistant Professor Janice Lee studies drivers, processes, and mechanisms of land-use and land-cover change in Asia (Source: Nanyang Technological University)


The team evaluated the outcomes from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a non-profit organisation that developed a set of criteria for palm oil certification. While certification systems work to protect the environment, they do not always do the same for developing villages, the study found. We sat down with Asst. Prof Lee to understand the impacts of her study for Singaporeans and Southeast Asia.

How has your fieldwork experience inspired this study and how does it fit with your results?

I started working on palm oil in 2009 when I started my PhD. I got to interview smallholders while RSPO was being implemented. It was an interesting process to witness. Palm oil companies wanted the smallholders to engage in certification, but smallholders were focused on their income and unsure about the benefits of certification. At the time, certification for sustainable palm oil was just taking off and the discussion around sustainable palm oil was minimal. Now the conversation is different and people are promoting sustainable palm oil. Because the big companies own the trade, they control whether this change towards sustainability can happen. And it was after reading one of my co-authors’ paper on evaluating the impact of the Forest Stewardship Council – a forestry certification system – that I became interested in how palm oil certification systems could influence environmental and social outcomes. Our results fit with what I saw in the field, for example, in Sumatra, where companies need to negotiate with communities to gain access to land by providing public goods.

Asst. Prof Janice Lee, here pictured in Bali, regularly conducts fieldwork and leads field trips in Southeast Asia to understand societal and earth system interactions (Source: Wardah Shafiqah/Earth Observatory of Singapore)


Has the certification process created environment and development trade-offs in Indonesia?

We found evidence of trade-offs and complementarities in environment and development outcomes along the slope where the communities live. These outcomes varied with the regions studied, Kalimantan and Sumatra, as they have very different contexts and histories of palm oil development. Overall, villages built on gentler slopes see significant improvements, such as more education facilities, less deforestation, and less pollution. However, villages on steeper terrain do not see such clear improvements.

How do you think the certification process could influence inequality?

We did not address this question in our paper, but other studies have shown that RSPO improved social outcomes for villages that rely on commerce rather than subsistence activities. In some ways, certification could exacerbate inequality since these villages may already be wealthier. Another way in which certification affects inequality is that certification requires money: big companies will be able to fulfil all the standards of RSPO but smallholders may not have the means to do so. Lastly, the certification process is largely determined by multinational companies and international actors such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and aid agencies. Hence, certification systems could be biased towards big companies and international objectives.

A palm oil plantation smallholder in Riau, Indonesia (Source: Janice Lee/Earth Observatory of Singapore)


To clear the land for oil palm plantations, companies often burn previous crops. This causes deforestation, fires and the haze we regularly suffer from in Singapore. Although certification reduces deforestation, you show that it does not decrease fires. Does this mean that certification may not decrease the potential for haze in Singapore?

Although we do not see yet a significant effect in the decline in fires, we think it should happen. This highlights that the fire issue is a lot more complicated and challenging to solve because many factors are at play. Land management and fire-fighting measures are factors that reduce fires while other factors, such as droughts, do the opposite. Even if we expect certification to decrease the rate of fires and the potential for haze, our results do not show it clearly.

Oil palm – here planted over burnt peatlands in Jambi – is a lucrative crop for farmers and large corporations. Despite their waterlogged nature, peatlands are targeted for conversion to oil palm as they are the remaining available lands in this landscape (Source: Janice Lee/Earth Observatory of Singapore)


Weighing the lifestyle benefits against the environmental costs of consuming palm oil often creates a debate on whether we should actually consume palm oil. How does your study inform Singaporeans about this debate?

There is always an initiative to get Singaporeans to be more mindful about the products they consume, including palm oil. Palm oil is essential for a lot of our foods and products. Being the cheapest oil available, it is important for people to have access to it. But we can allow these services while being more environment-friendly by choosing sustainable palm oil and encouraging more businesses to buy certified palm oil. Singapore plays a crucial role as traders in palm oil exported to many countries in the world. We can therefore be a crucial leverage point to increase the uptake of certified palm oil and encourage more producers to participate in sustainable palm oil production.

How can your study help inform stakeholders and governments?

Our study can help with decision-making to invest in certified palm oil plantations, owned by companies or smallholder cooperatives, by providing the credibility of certification impact on the ground. It can also inform governments of the outcomes of these certification programs when they are considering the implementation of sustainability standards and reporting for companies involved in the palm oil supply chain such as banks, traders, processors and consumers.

A palm oil plantation in Jambi, Indonesia (Source: Janice Lee/Earth Observatory of Singapore)


Given that palm oil is essential to us, what can local consumers do to support sustainable practices and consumption of these products?

I have been working on palm oil for more than a decade now and would like to introduce more nuance to the discussion of palm oil consumption. Ten years ago, the message was “palm oil is bad”. Now, companies and governments are involved to set criteria for managing land use processes from palm oil development. We have improved a lot, but it truly is a very complex topic that needs a nuanced conversation. I hope Singaporeans will be more aware and conscious of our position in regional financing, production and trade of palm oil and use our voices and money to advocate for more sustainable consumption and production practices.

Subscribe to the EOS Newsletter

Stay in touch with the latest news, events, research, and publications from the Earth Observatory of Singapore.

Email is required

Email is wrong format

You Can Make a Difference

Partner with us to make an impact and create safer, more sustainable societies throughout Southeast Asia.
Make A Gift