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The first global Palm Oil Barometer report has been launched by international civil society organisation Solidaridad and smallholder producer organisations in Asia, Africa and Latin-America, Solidaridad announced on 15 September.

Solidaridad said the report aimed to give a new perspective on the mainly negative public debate around palm oil in western countries.

“Palm oil production figures prominently in the media as a cause of deforestation, biodiversity loss and climate change. However, by isolating its impact on the environment from the poverty crisis, to which it is directly linked, it’s easy to overlook the vital role smallholders play in palm oil production,” the association said.

“Although the image of large companies growing vast expanses of oil palms as a monoculture holds true, more than 3M smallholders and their families produce roughly 30% of the world’s palm oil. And a multitude of workers find jobs in oil palm production.”

In Indonesia alone, around 16M workers – most of them smallholders – are employed in the palm oil sector, according to the organisation, with their contribution in the overall supply of palm oil expected to increase as industrial scale companies are forced to limit expansion due to zero-deforestation commitments.

“Smallholders produce not even 2% of certified sustainable palm oil on the market, while contributing 30% of the world’s supply. Governments and businesses must make smallholder inclusion part of their sustainability criteria,” Solidaridad Asia managing director Shatadru Chattopadhayay said.

Although smallholders generated US$17bn of the palm oil industry’s US$282bn turnover in 2020, many did not earn enough to cover their families’ essential living costs, the association said.

In contrast, the consumer goods companies and retail took 66% of the gross profits on palm oil in food, household, and body care products.

“Smallholder interests are not only overlooked in the value chain, their role and interests are also ignored in the public debate,” Solidaridad said.

While campaigns by NGOs and commercial brands called for a palm oil boycott to combat biodiversity loss, many academics and conservation organisations agreed that banning palm oil would simply shift the problem elsewhere, threatening other habitats and species, the association said.

“Farmers’ organisations should play a key role in the debate on the future of palm oil farming. Focusing on fair value distribution and minimising environmental degradation is key. The private sector and governments need to move from technical assistance to programmes that address the structural disadvantages at smallholder farm level,” Solidaridad added.

Solidaridad Europe managing director Heske Verburg recommended that “companies and governments in consuming and producing regions include smallholders’ interests when developing and implementing policies. The European Union (EU) should ensure that smallholders will be supported to meet the requirements of the EU Regulation on deforestation-free products​​ and, in partnership with producing countries, tackle the root causes of deforestation, including poverty.”