SEC to start certifying palm oil products from Feb

The Singapore Environment Council (SEC) is expected to start certifying palm oil-based products in February next year.

In response to queries from The Straits Times, SEC executive director Edwin Seah said it is working with professional services firm Ernst & Young to develop a new product category for products that have palm oil, under its Singapore Green Labelling Scheme (SGLS).

The non-governmental group has awarded its green label to over 3,000 products here but currently does not certify palm oil-based products, which include chocolates, hand soaps and detergents.

The new category will also be developed with input from palm oil certification body, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). "The key challenge is the supply chain trail but we are assured that this will be verified by RSPO, and we will require RSPO certification when a company submits its product for SGLS certification," said Mr Seah.

Manufacturers that wish to apply for the certification may do so from February, and applications are expected to take about two weeks to process once all documents are in.

Mr Stephano Savi, RSPO's global outreach and engagement director, has said that as much as 80 per cent of global palm oil is uncertified.

The complex supply chain and lack of transparency make it difficult for palm oil products to be certified. For instance, there could be mixing of palm oil from different sources at multiple stages in the supply chain, making it tough to trace a product back to one source.

The demand for greater transparency and sustainably sourced products came under the spotlight after Singapore suffered one of its most prolonged periods of haze.

While the haze this year may not have been as bad as the 1997 episode, it has surpassed the 2013 one in magnitude and duration, said Dr Erik Velasco, a research scientist from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology.

During the 2013 episode, the three-hour Pollutant Standards Index hit a high of 401. That episode was very intense, said Dr Velasco, but it lasted only a week. This year, it has lasted three months so far.

As of last Friday, 131 firms have signed the SEC declaration saying they procure their wood, paper and/or pulp materials from sustainable sources. SEC's move had sparked a chain reaction, with retailers like NTUC FairPrice pulling paper products linked to the haze.

When asked, Dr Seck Tan, a research fellow from the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, acknowledged that while consumer pressure is one way of tackling the haze issue, not all end-consumers would be able to make informed choices as palm oil is often labelled as vegetable oil.

"The responsibility falls on companies to ensure consumers are well informed with their product purchases. Hence, these companies, as corporate consumers, should stipulate accountable and sustainable farming from oil palm producers," said Dr Tan.

Major palm oil players such as Wilmar and Cargill said they have initiatives in place to ensure a traceable supply chain.

Mr Graham Usher, who studies habitat change and forest loss in northern Sumatra at conservation group PanEco Foundation, said that one way in which the haze problem can be more effectively tackled is by better regulating smaller-scale oil palm plantations.

"That does not mean that large companies are blameless and should not be scrutinised, but I do believe that a lot of destruction is driven by smaller-scale land-grabbing," he said.

This article was first published on November 9, 2015.
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