Ups and downs

There is no question that some of the founders of the RSPO and RTRS were genuinely concerned about the negative impacts their companies have imposed on the environment and wanted to address these issues.

However, the objective for many others was to do what was necessary to allay the concerns of environment groups and governments and be able to promote their businesses as stewards of the environment and human rights.

Their top commercial priority was to continue sourcing palm oil from Southeast Asia and soybean from Brazil while avoiding backlash from consumers, mostly in Europe where the sustainability pressures are the most intense. The overall effort clearly was and is positive for the environment, although it would seem that protection of their brand names was perhaps most important to some supporters of the RSPO and RTRS.

The US soybean industry has largely been a bystander on the sustainability effort that has been led by Europe and carried out by the RTRS. This is due to the fact that there have been no European allegations that US soybean farmers, processors, traders and exporters are producing and supplying soybean and related products in an unsustainable manner. That is because US soybean farmers must comply with strict federal and state regulations relative to the environment, labour, land rights and other factors that are stricter than those required by the RTRS.

Almost as a second thought, the RTRS did invite the US soybean industry to join and participate in its process, but farmers’ organisations declined to do so because they believed they were already adhering to more rigid standards and were unwilling to subject themselves to third-party inspections that they would have to fund.

As it turns out, the RTRS effort has not been very successful in certifying a substantial volume of soybean as meeting its sustainability requirements against a set goal of 10 million tonnes. It indicates only 1.3 million tonnes were RTRS-certified in 2014. That is far less than the quantity needed to supply Europe or even the main companies that started the RTRS.

It seems that most South American farmers also do not want to be subjected to outside inspections at their own cost in order to supply certified soybean to buyers at little or no premium. Who can blame them?

Separately, US soybean producers have chosen to promote the sustainability of their crop. The US Soybean Export Council has established the US Soybean Assurance Protocol to assure foreign buyers that the beans, meal and oil they source from the US have been produced in a sustainable way.

Based on farmers’ compliance with federal regulations, the organisation is able to provide importers and users with documentation certifying the soybean purchased is sustainable. Some buyers already are requesting the certificates, and this is expected to increase in the future as European importers have begun to accept the US Soybean Assurance Protocol certifications as equivalent to those of the RTRS.

Producing soybean and other crops in a sustainable manner is a good thing not only for the planet but also for producers and consumers. By finding ways to produce higher yields while using less energy, fertilisers and crop protectants, farmers can decrease their cost of production. At the same time, they can protect the soil as well as reduce water and air pollution.

In doing so, they also can provide consumers with the assurance that what they are eating is not harming the planet, which is a win-win proposition for all. It is a trend that will likely continue and intensify in the future.

John Baize,
World Perspectives Inc, Ag Review, July 2015


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