The people’s vote of confidence in sustainability schemes

For the first time, sustainability certification of a food commodity will be explicitly written into a trade agreement. The Swiss people recently voted in a referendum to remove tariffs on Indonesian palm oil, if it has been sustainably certified and kept separate from all other palm oil. Three sustainability schemes have been recognised by the Swiss for the prevention of deforestation and loss of biodiversity from palm oil production.  They are RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), ISCC PLUS (International Sustainability and Carbon Certification) and POIG (Palm Oil Innovation Group). 

This pioneering trade deal sets an important precedent that the EU should follow.  The importation of palm oil, soy, beef, cocoa, maize, rubber, timber and other crops into the Europe, accounts for up to 10% of the worldwide deforestation caused by agriculture. The EU-Mercosur trade deal, a proposed free-trade arrangement between the South American trade bloc and the EU, will increase imports of beef and other high-risk commodities from Amazon countries with no robust measures to prevent further deforestation. France has said it won’t sign the deal until environmental safeguards are increased. 

The Swiss insistence that certified palm oil must be kept entirely separate or ‘segregated’ is also important. Most consumers don’t realise that sustainable and conventional food ingredients are mixed in storage and processing, which opens the door to confusion, misrepresentation and even fraud. Hopefully this will become more widely known, resulting in consumer pressure for food brands to purchase more segregated, sustainably produced commodities. 

It is ironic that the vote of confidence in ISCC PLUS and RSPO occurred a few days before Greenpeace published a report criticising them, together with a range of sustainability schemes, for not being strict enough. But, to repeat what I have said previously, undermining the major sustainability schemes risks their future. Without the schemes, companies who want to act in an environmentally responsible manner would lose a key way of sourcing sustainable commodities.  Consumers would have fewer independent sustainability labels to guide them. And, to add to these arguments, the Swiss would not have been able to rely on them in the trade deal with Indonesia.

International rules were set up at a time when a requirement to protect the environment would have been classed as a ‘barrier to trade’. But views have changed. The issue of deforestation has become a key public concern since terrible fires in the Amazon, caused by land clearance for agriculture, became worldwide news. This referendum in Switzerland, the first on a trade deal, reflects the level of public concern over the role of palm oil production in forest clearance. A legal expert who worked on the agreement explained the rational behind it. ‘Sustainable processes are promoted by linking them to market incentives. At the same time, sales for non-sustainably produced products are not facilitated. This is also called "product differentiation".’ The EU too has recognised that it must remove deforestation from its supply chains and boost demand for sustainably produced food, but it is unsure how to go about doing it. Now the Swiss have shown the way. 

Published: 30 March 21

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