NERC Impact Awards 2018: Informing new 'no deforestation' standard for sustainable palm oil

15 November 2018

New certification standards to make growing palm oil less destructive to biodiversity were developed based on research by NERC 2018 Impact Awards finalist Dr Jennifer Lucey.

Jennifer Lucey

Dr Jennifer Lucey

Today, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) - an international body that certifies palm oil as sustainable - announced the adoption of a new 'no deforestation' criteria that industry will need to meet in order to obtain the RSPO Trademark.

Dr Lucey, of the University of Oxford, has dedicated her career so far to reducing the devastating impact of commodities such as palm oil - an ingredient used in more than half of supermarket products in the UK - on the rich ecosystems of the tropics. Home to critically endangered wildlife such as Sumatran tigers and orangutans, rainforests across the tropics, including Malaysia and Indonesia, continue to be deforested to provide farming land for the highly-productive oil palm crop.

Dr Lucey's NERC-funded research has pinpointed how big rainforest reserves need to be in order to effectively conserve biodiversity in land dominated by palm oil plantations. The thresholds she identified have filled a key gap in the knowledge and are helping the industry take a standardised, evidence-based approach to land management to preserve biodiversity.

Read more about Dr Lucey's research in our Planet Earth article Protecting biodiversity in palm oil.

Working alongside environmental non-governmental organisation Greenpeace International and the oil palm industry, Dr Lucey's research has been used to develop a 'no deforestation' methodology known as the High Carbon Stock (HCS) Approach. This standard requires oil palm growers to ensure future land clearing does not cause deforestation of critical rainforest, and has already been adopted by numerous international companies.

However, until today, the RSPO - the international body that certifies palm oil production as sustainable - did not include this criteria. Among other revisions for stricter environmental and social criteria, members of the RSPO voted at their annual general meeting in Malaysia today (Thursday 15 November 2018) to adopt the HCS approach as a requirement to gain RSPO certification.

Dr Lucey said:

The RSPO's decision to strengthen its standard to protect more valuable forests is a great step forward for a more sustainable palm oil industry. By adopting a standardised evidence based approach, designed in collaboration with scientists, it is hoped that not only will more forest be protected, but areas will be designed to be larger, with fewer degrading edges, and better connected, allowing biodiversity to persist in oil palm landscapes.

I have been working with the oil palm industry to use the data and research to develop effective land planning and conservation policies to maximise the amount of biodiversity supported in oil farm landscapes. The biggest impact that we have seen is with the High Carbon Stock Approach, a toolkit spearheaded by Greenpeace, among others, to go beyond certification and put no deforestation into practice in our oil palm industry, and this had been signed up to by a number of the biggest oil palm growers globally and is now being applied across millions of hectares across the tropics.

NERC Associate Director of Research Ned Garnett said:

The 2018 Impact Awards shortlist recognises environmental science that has had a significant impact on the economy or society in the UK or internationally. Dr Lucey's research on forest thresholds has led to more sustainable practices being adopted by international palm oil companies, protecting the biodiversity of the rainforests in the tropics. Since being shortlisted by NERC, the impact of her research has been demonstrated further in the RSPO's adoption of the HCS approach, which is underpinned by this environmental science. Dr Lucey's work is of significant benefit both to the countries supporting the sustainable growth and export of palm oil, and to consumers in the UK and worldwide keen to support sustainable palm oil products.

Grant Rosoman, Global Forests Solutions Senior Advisor at Greenpeace International, said:

Jen provided critical conservation science input to strengthen the HCSA forest patch analysis in the revision of the toolkit to version 2. Subsequently, the HCSA toolkit has become widely accepted and has now been adopted by RSPO in their global certification standards to address deforestation.

The impact of today's booming palm oil industry on animals and plants in tropical rainforests has been widely publicised, and there is increasing concern among consumers about the environmental impact of the products they pick from the supermarket shelves. However, Dr Lucey suggests that avoiding palm oil altogether is not the answer. She said:

We use vegetable oil from palm in products from bread to chocolate, to cosmetics, detergents and cleaning products. It is the most productive vegetable crop we have. It's about six times more productive than the next best thing, canola oil, 10 times the yield of soybean oil, and 11 times the yield of sunflower oil. So replacing it with something else is not a more environmentally-friendly option. Whether we like it or not, palm oil is here to stay, therefore as consumers I believe we should be registering our concerns by buying sustainable palm oil, not trying to avoid palm oil altogether.

Dr Lucey's research has been shortlisted for the early career category of the 2018 NERC Impact Awards. Winners will be announced at a ceremony at the Natural History Museum on 3 December 2018.

Further information

Mary Goodchild
External Communications Manager
01793 411939
07710 147485


1. NERC is the UK's main funder of environmental science. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects tackling major environmental issues. NERC is part of UK Research & Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

2. Read more about the High Carbon Stock Approach - external link - on Greenpeace's website.