The Origins of Palm Oil

If you were to walk through the palm oil groves of equatorial West Africa, you might find it difficult to distinguish between these man-made agroforests and the native forest from which they emerged. Such is the diversity and complexity of these traditional agroecological systems. In them lies the key to regenerating what has become one of the most controversial crops, agricultural systems and industries in the world.

Palm Oil (Elaeis guineensis) originated in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea (as far north as Guinea-Bissau and as far south as northwest Angola), and, for the indigenous peoples of the region such as the Yoruba, it has for millennia been considered ‘’the tree of life’’ and used for a wide variety of culinary, medicinal, cosmetic and spiritual purposes. Mixed intercropping and shifting polycultures incorporating palm oil have been a dominant aspect of indigenous agroecology for millennia. Their production systems make use of groundcover and understory crops that suppress weed growth, increase yields and optimize the growing conditions for palm oil by increasing light, water and nutrient availability. These farming communities have understood the importance of maintaining the health of the local ecosystem for their livelihoods and those of future generations.

Traditional palm oil agroforestry systems in West Africa and Bahia, Brazil (where enslaved people from West Africa were relocated along with their crops) represent highly complex agricultural systems with a great variety of interplanted crops including palm oil, kola nut, yam, beans, okra, manioc, black pepper, guarana, bananas, cloves, chilies and include the rotation of livestock such as goats, cattle and sheep. These palm oil multi-strata agroforestry systems serve as inspiration for our reconsideration of the relationship between humans and palm oil and provide a guide by which we can redesign the production context of palm oil towards a truly regenerative system of supply wherein palm oil is a keystone species within a diverse, resilient and profitable agroecosystem.

Palm Oil Today

Palm oil has become the world’s most important source of vegetable oil, grown on over 21 million hectares throughout the humid tropics and producing more per hectare than any other vegetable oil crop (6-10 times more productive than its closest competitor canola). Today palm oil is used for a great variety of purposes including food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, detergents, greases, animal feed, lubricants, biofuels, water treatment products, etc. It has been estimated to be found in over 50% of packaged goods found in supermarkets. The versatility and high productivity of palm oil have created large demand for the crop and have resulted in production systems that value short term outputs at environmental and social costs.

Conventional palm oil is undoubtedly one of the most environmentally destructive and socially contentious commodity crops grown today. The palm oil producer’s tendency towards expansive monocultures and agrochemical dependence has caused untold damage to the tropical forest bioregions in which palm grows best.  Exploitative labor practices have undermined community wellbeing and caused public outcry around the world. Palm Oil has developed a bad reputation and has been the subject of many boycott campaigns in recent years. However, it is the production context that is the problem and not the palm oil species itself. We should not blame this amazing plant for our folly.

In recent years the spotlight has been shone on the damage created by large scale monocropped palm oil. This is especially true in places like Indonesia and Malaysia but increasingly in other parts of the humid tropics such as West Africa and Latin America. In response, sustainable palm oil initiatives such as Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) as well as other industry standards have made important progress towards addressing the negative social and environmental effects of the industry. However, despite these initiatives, palm oil production remains one of the most degenerative agricultural sectors, primarily due to the fact that current standards and initiatives do not call for bold systemic evolution within the production context but rather focus on trying to limit the damage done.

Palm Oil as a Force for Positive Change

This article explores the role that palm oil could play as a force for positive change in the regeneration of tropical landscapes while uplifting rural farming communities. A regenerative design firm, Terra Genesis International (TGI) and a pioneering palm producing and processing company, Natural Habitats, have been working together to shift the palm oil industry away from degeneration and towards regeneration.

Inspired by indigenous agroecological palm oil production & the innovative practices of palm farmers throughout the tropics, TGI and Natural Habitats are demonstrating how, when properly designed and managed, palm oil farms can act as a force for good in their production landscapes. Our shared vision is of an industry that not only tries to limit the damage created, but also focuses on conserving habitat and restoring degraded landscapes. We look to create resilient and prosperous agricultural systems based around palm oil as a keystone crop, and playing a significant role in addressing the climate crisis.

In 2017 Natural Habitats partnered with TGI to explore how they could further leverage their positive impact by shifting their current supply of organic palm oil towards regenerative farming systems. Utilizing their expertise in whole systems design and regenerative agriculture, TGI created a strategic framework and methodology for Regenerative Palm based on the specific context of Natural Habitats producers in Esmeraldas, Ecuador.

Natural Habitats is a palm producing, processing and trading company committed to the sustainable production of organic, fair-trade palm oil. The Palm Done Right initiative has been at the forefront leading the sustainable and organic palm industry for the past ten years. Natural Habitats works closely with Ecuadorian farming communities to develop their capacity to apply organic and sustainable agricultural practices to palm production and adhere to progressive environmental and social standards. Natural Habitats has worked hard to grow the market for organic palm oil, establishing direct connections between oil palm farmers and manufacturers, operating its integrated supply chain. The Palm Done Right initiative builds brand, retail and consumer awareness for palm oil’s potential to create positive change.

TGI invited Natural Habitats to integrate a whole systems design process, helping their team frame their development of palm oil from a regenerative perspective. By evaluating the state of Natural Habitat’s palm production network, TGI identified which interventions would create change across the system and provided a roadmap for how to put the plan into action. Together they strive to shift the role of palm oil to one in which the crop is grown in harmony with the social and ecological imperatives of people and place. This integration of regenerative agriculture in combination with holistic business design could transform the palm oil industry, and be a key instrument by which we can reverse global warming as well as affect positive change upon the health of ecosystems and biodiversity.

Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles, patterns, processes, and practices that actively enriches soils, biodiversity, ecosystems, and watersheds while effectively producing a variety of ecosystem functions and agricultural yields.

Shifting the Industry

An industry leader in sustainable and organic palm production, Natural Habitats created a movement to prove that palm oil can be grown for good, and  to show that when “done right,” palm oil can bring significant positive impact to the world. That movement, Palm Done Right®, brings together manufacturers, retailers and consumers to increase awareness around the environmental and social benefits of palm grown organically, with fair-trade practices, working with small farmers around the world.

The work of Natural Habitats and Palm Done Right has fostered a new narrative for palm oil., shifting the perception of using palm oil ingredients in products for both manufacturers and end consumers. Creating market share for certified organic palm oil has been no small feat. Natural Habitats continues to innovate and lead the palm oil industry towards a better future with their work in regenerative palm production.

The Regenerative Development Process

Palm Oil Producers’ Context and Data Collection

TGI’s regenerative design & development process works to uncover how each crop, agricultural system and community can create a pathway towards expressing the full potential of that system to positively impact the world. In collaborating with Natural Habitats, TGI worked to develop the capacity of the stakeholders in their system, from farmer to brand, to think and act regeneratively. Their goal was to not just offer solutions, but rather co-generate a pathway with Natural Habitats and the palm farmers on the ground.

To understand the unique context and complexities they were working with, TGI conducted an in-depth assessment of the ecological, social & cultural context of farmers in Natural Habitats producer communities. The TGI team spent significant time on the ground in Ecuador surveying eleven of Natural Habitats producers in a specific region. To inform their strategy development, TGI conducted a meta-study of peer-reviewed data, aerial analysis of producer farms, a review of farm enterprise finances, and field observation. Data was derived from five main sources:

  1. Farmer semi-structured interviews & on-site farm assessments
  2. Natural Habitats’ outgrower data
  3. Secondary data sources (e.g. scientific and industry literature)
  4. On-site soil assessment and sample analysis
  5. Geospatial analysis using orthographic imagery and used to develop:
    • Land classifications based on land coverage and image color
    • Measurements of gaps in the canopy-
    • Topographic study of the property
    • Disease maps identifying patterns of pathogenic transmission

The data collected was used to diagnose the risks and opportunities within the palm production system and create a set of strategic interventions that could shift Natural Habitats’ whole system of production towards resilience and regeneration.

Identifying Opportunities to Leverage Positive Impact

Whole systems design identifies the interconnectedness and importance of every element within a system. It reveals the uniqueness of the different elements and entities that make up a system and shows how they are interconnected, active and alive. To see the full value of all of life connected to a supply system and redesign it in a way that honors and builds the capacity of each element to thrive, we need to ask ourselves what a supply system could look like if every living thing connected to the production and sales of palm oil was considered a valuable stakeholder in the system.

Support for Natural Based Solutions (of which Regenerative Agriculture is a notable example) has grown significantly over the last several years. [i]Project Drawdown has done an outstanding job of quantifying the impact of these solutions, and, out of the top 20 of these, Food, Agriculture & Land Use solutions occupy over half. Furthermore, in a paper titled [ii]Ecology and economics for pandemic prevention published by Dobson et al., in early September 2020, they identified the significant role that nature-based solutions could play in pandemic prevention through investments in conservation and restoration of tropical landscapes. We believe that regenerative production can be a key financial driver by which farmers in these landscapes can achieve meaningful livelihoods and develop regenerative economies while doing the vital conservation and restoration work that is an intrinsic component of the whole landscape approach to regeneration.

Palm Oil as a Keystone Crop

The West African communities who farmed palm oil in highly complex mixed forests for millennia shared this whole system view of the land, crops and human communities. Looking back to the origins of palm oil farming, we see how this crop was a critical element of the managed forest. Based on this traditional model, TGI proposes that palm oil can be used as a “keystone crop” in regenerative agricultural systems. Designing Natural Habitats’ production systems with palm oil as a keystone crop in a diverse farming system would create a domino effect of positive change throughout the entire production and supply system.

Keystone crops are crops that play particularly important roles in farming ecosystems. Within each broad climate zone (Tropic, Temperate, Mediterranean & Arid) there are a handful of economically important plant species that have the potential to be Regenerative Keystone Crops. Due to their particular growth characteristics, cultural significance and utility of their yields and derivative products, these crops have a disproportionately important role in catalyzing landscape-scale regeneration.

Strategic Design ToolsIn the humid tropics, palm oil represents such a keystone crop. Palm oil as a keystone crop in regenerative agriculture systems could become a major contributor to landscape regeneration and the reversal of global warming.

TGI has worked with Natural Habitats to build their internal capacity to develop and manage regenerative production systems and enterprises. They developed two key instruments that the Natural Habitats’ team could use to develop their producer network utilizing a regenerative approach.

The first instrument developed was a set of Principles of Regenerative Palm.  These principles guide the thinking that leads to design, implementation, and management of a system. They bring critical clarity and cohesion to core and peripheral members of the system.

The Principles of Regenerative Palm are informed by the first principles of regeneration as articulated by Carol Sanford and enriched by the pioneering efforts of agroecological researchers and practitioners from around the world.

The second instrument developed was a tiered classification system for palm oil farms. This system takes into consideration the whole system under management and what interventions are required to bring about positive change. This accomplishes two things: first, it allows for accurate assessments of the current management context of  farm; and second, it can be used to determine what specific shifts in practice would be appropriate in order to move the farm and landscape towards regeneration. The tiers are nested, meaning that each one builds upon the prior up to the highest expression of potential.

This tiered system will be used by Natural Habitats with existing and future producers to better understand where producers are on the scale of organic to regenerative practices and what steps producers can take to evolve their production system.

Interventions for Shifting to Regenerative Palm Oil

Practices and Protocols of Regenerative Palm Management

Based on the data collected and using the strategic design tools to guide the process, TGI laid out  specific interventions producers can make in order to shift practices from organic to regenerative. The strategic design outlined the following practices and protocols of regenerative palm management for each specific Tier of Regenerative Palm Oil:

  • Integrated Fertility Management
  • Integrated Pest Management
  • Landscape Diversification & Enrichment Plantings
  • Gap Enrichment Plantings
  • Diversified Row Plantings
  • Riparian Buffer Zones
  • Connectivity Corridors / Ecological Networks
  • Perimeter Buffer Zones

Financial Viability

In order to implement the proposed regenerative practices, we needed to understand the financial viability of these interventions.  We used financial modeling to assess each farm’s current profitability and future financial viability under different scenarios of regenerative interventions. The analysis showed how shifting to regenerative practices has the potential to be more profitable, as well as address inevitable climate and disease risks that farmers face. It detailed how farms can plan the diversity and timing of production for long-term profitability and resilience.

Piloting Regenerative Palm On the Ground

Through a collaborative discovery and design process, TGI & Natural Habitats developed a regenerative design framework to guide strategic thinking and a concrete set of tools for developing a unique system of regenerative palm oil production. With this solid foundation, the next step will be the implementation of a pilot project on the ground in 2021. The pilot will demonstrate how, by engaging all stakeholders in the system and by using a regenerative design approach, palm farms can be financially viable drivers of positive change. Once viability has been proven this approach can be scaled and replicated amongst Natural Habitat’s network and throughout the palm industry.

“Imagine a diverse and thriving tropical forest ecosystem that provides a vast array of ecological services, a biodiverse landscape providing an abundance of nutritious products supporting the livelihoods and regenerative development of rural communities in the Global South. We know this is possible & necessary, we also know it is financially viable. Palm Oil can be a vehicle for this process of regeneration in the humid tropics of the world”

Luke Smith – Director of Regenerative Agriculture, TGI

Together, TGI and Natural Habitats, have taken the first step to evolve the story of palm oil from one of deforestation and human rights abuses to one of resilient tropical agroforestry, regeneration of community, carbon drawdown and enhanced biodiversity.Once a pilot is established a monitoring and reporting protocol will be created that will transparently track and verify particular ecological and social outcomes associated with this landscape regeneration. Tracking these outcomes (e.g. carbon sequestration, biodiversity revitalization or farmer wellbeing) would allow for “tokenizing” ecological functions to make them tradable assets. This creates additional revenue potential for farmers, de-risks the transition to regenerative palm and reconciles the trade-offs between ecological and economic functions.

Taking the next step requires a joint effort that encompasses the entire value chain.
Once we understand how much palm oil (75 million metric tonnes) is produced annually to manufacture the extensive range of products we are using on a daily basis, we will understand the importance of collaborative networks, investment, financial reward and commitment to transform the sector from a destructive force to a force for positive change.

Twenty-five years of unbridled oil palm development leading to a quadrupling of volumes has led to the extensive forest destruction, wildlife habitat loss and exploitation of people we have been seeing to date. The need to find alternative pathways is more crucial than ever before. Working with small and medium sized farms and harnessing their untapped potential will forge new working models necessary to elevate prosperity for all.

We invite you to engage with us and learn more at terra-genesis.com, natural-habitats.com and palmdoneright.com.

References

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Monique van Wijnbergen

Monique van Wijnbergen is Sustainability and Corporate Communications Director at Natural Habitats Group, a company fully committed to the sustainable production of organic and fair-trade palm oil.  She...

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Luke Smith

Luke Smith is a systems ecologist working to regenerate living systems at the intersection of culture, ecology and economy. His company TGI convenes farmers, brands, investors & nonprofits to curate...

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