Amsterdam - The arrival in Rotterdam of the first shipload of palm oil certified as "sustainable" was celebrated on Tuesday, despite the release of a report by the environmentalist group Greenpeace that claimed the producer had violated sustainability standards.
The palm oil from Malaysian producer United Plantions had been certified as sustainable by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in September. But Greenpeace claimed in a report that the company does not meet all criteria set for an environmentally friendly product as laid down by the roundtable.
Companies that subscribe to RSPO standards promise to help reduce deforestation, preserve biodiversity, and respect the livelihoods of rural communities in palm oil-producing countries.
Jan Kees Vis, president of the RSPO and the sustainable agriculture director at Unilever NV, called the arrival of sustainable palm oil "a small but significant step."
United Plantations was the first company to receive a RSPO- certificate for plantations in Malaysia, confirming the company's production methods and social policies meet the RSPO's standards of sustainability.
By the end of 2008 certified plantations are projected to produce 1.5 million tons of RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil on an annual basis, about 4 per cent of current global palm oil production.
Palm oil is the world's most important category of vegetable oil. In 2007, palm plantations yielded more than 38 million tonnes of oil, making it one of the world's biggest commodity products.
In Europe, palm oil is now used as an ingredient in a large variety of consumer products, including margarine, ice cream, chocolate, detergents, soap and biscuits.
Greenpeace claims United Plantations, which sells oil to Nestle and Unilever and has plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, is cutting down trees in the Indonesian territory that is home to orangutans, an endangered species of great ape.
It says United Plantations would also be entangled in land conflicts with the local population.
United Plantations responded furiously to the Greenpeace report on Tuesday.
In a 12-page statement, the company spoke about "serious and unwarranted allegations" by Greenpeace and rebutted the group's claims, which it said were based on "misconceptions and misunderstandings."
Meanwhile, RSPO, the organization responsible for setting the standards of the sustainable production certificate, said it "welcomes input from NGOs aimed at strengthening its control and certification systems."
RSPO said United Plantations had already agreed to fully cooperate with an investigation into the "additional information" provided by Greenpeace.
RSPO has approved several independent organizations to perform certifications for sustainable palm oil production.
Gerben Stegeman from Control Union Certification, which certified United Plantations, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa that on Friday, three days before Greenpeace released its report, his company had received information about possible violations of RSPO standards by United Plantations.
"We immediately dispatched two investigators to research the situation," he said.
According to Stegeman, companies requesting a certificate regularly do not meet all criteria.
"Companies with minor non-compliances are given a certificate provided they will and can solve these problems within a year," Stegeman said.
He emphasized his company, which is based in Zwolle in the eastern Netherlands, always checks afterwards whether manufacturers have improved their standards.
In case major non-compliances are discovered, certificates are simply not given, Stegeman said. He added certificates are always given for a 5-year period only.
Suzanne Kroeger from Greenpeace said her organization had not join other environmental organizations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) at the RSPO to discuss the definition of sustainable production because "there is no time to talk endlessly with companies that meanwhile continue the deforestation process."
"If Indonesian peat forests continue to be cut down at the current speed, they will disappear within the next 15 years," she said.
Kroeger said two things should change before RSPO becomes a credible certificate.
"RSPO has to ensure the companies that receive its certificate will comply with all of its criteria. And it should raise its standards." (dpa)