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Getting Personal With Palm Done Right

by | November 24, 2019

In the final portion of our four-part series on palm oil, we speak to Monique van Wijnbergen, Natural Habitats’ sustainability and corporate communication lead.

Throughout this interview we hear about how Monique came to be an advocate for sustainable palm oil, and share in some of her experiences of the industry.

Monique also gives her insight into the founder of Palm Done Right — Alfons Van Der Aa. She explains what Alfons set out to do almost ten years ago. This is when they began the difficult work of changing the conversation around palm oil, proving that palm can be grown for good.

Q: What is your background and how did you end up getting involved with palm oil?

Soon after graduating from university in The Netherlands I started working in the consumer goods business, initially for big corporations like Sara Lee and Nestlé.

My work began in the chocolate, coffee and tea categories which helped me to gain an understanding of those supply chains.

After this time, I was given the responsibility of creating a new category in grocery – introducing good and tasty alternatives to meat and poultry. The aim of my role was to expand the range of options for vegetarians. This was my first step into working with products that offered a sustainable alternative to that which we are so used to finding on our shelves. This was also an opportunity to discover new stakeholders in the food industry.

In 2005, I moved to India with my husband, toddler and baby sons. I had the wonderful opportunity to do community work with children living in poverty in Bangalore. It was here that I witnessed that educating a child is an effective way to impact the health and welfare of an entire family.

Living in India also provided me with the opportunity to visit the areas where tea and coffee are grown. These were products that I previously worked with during my time at Sara Lee, however, this was my first visit to tea and coffee plantations.

I was struck by the beauty of the landscapes yet appalled by the living conditions of the people working there. The more I began to learn about the origin of our food, and its supply chains, the more surprised I was by how unaware we are as consumers. Also, seeing how the workers were treated only increased my desire to get more involved. 

tea plantation
Monique visited tea plantations in India (Source: NATNN / Shutterstock.com)

From India we moved to Poland, and then eventually back to Holland where I reignited my passion for sustainable agriculture. I worked on projects with UTZ Certified — the benchmark for the sustainable production of coffee, tea and cocoa — which later merged with the Rainforest Alliance.

This experience led me to a role at OXFAM in the Netherlands. Here I joined the palm oil team with the responsibility of getting businesses (CPG and retailers) to join projects in Indonesia and The Democratic Republic of the Congo.

While working on OXFAM’s FAIR Company Community Partnerships, I was introduced to Natural Habitats. I became fascinated with the sustainable approach to this important and versatile crop, and how they wanted to set a positive example in the palm oil sector — an industry that is widely known for its destructive practices.

Q: Tell me more about the vision of Natural Habitats and of its founder

In my quest to learn more about the work of Natural Habitats, I reached out to Alfons van der Aa, founder and CEO. I was impressed with his vision and unwavering passion. Alfons had previously owned a small plantation in Ecuador and was looking to make an impact in organic palm oil farming.

It was clear to Alfons that he needed to work with local palm oil farmers and convert them to organic practices, rather than simply buying more land, which other producers often do. On the market side, he had to convince manufacturers to replace conventional palm oil with its responsibly grown organic counterpart. This shift was the best way to eradicate the exploitative practices that are so widespread in the sector.

local palm oil workers
A local worker harvesting palm oil (Source: WIRACHAIPHOTO / Shutterstock.com)

Alfons says “I had two goals: first, to find a faster way to scale sustainable practices and second, to create impact by converting conventional farmers and showing them a new model for growing palm oil. This new model is organic and sustainable, benefitting farmers and their communities, and the environment which they depend upon.”

I was struck by the fact that Alfons likes to think big, sticks to his vision and wants to make an impact in the sector. He is certainly doing this through his mission with Palm Done Right.

Q: What motivates you to do this work

Ever since I was a child I have been in touch with nature. I would play outside all day, and especially loved being in the forest or around animals.  When I stepped into the tea fields and later found myself in the production landscapes of the other crops, I really felt connected with nature again.

I truly believe we can serve our needs while also protecting nature and animals. To me, the human side of this equation is crucial. It is unacceptable that we are building such good lives in the markets where we consume these products, while the farmers that work so hard every day live in poverty.

I’ve seen it with my own eyes and I believe we all deserve the same opportunities in life. I know that there is a way to improve the system so we can all benefit — this is what keeps me motivated to continue doing this important work.

Q: Why do you think the subject of palm oil is so confusing and how can consumers learn the facts?

Unlike coffee or cocoa, palm oil is an invisible ingredient, so it is hard to link its production to the products that we consume on a daily basis.  Since it is ‘hidden’ in products, it’s hard for consumers to grasp what it is and what it does.

Palm oil is an important functional ingredient, doing important jobs such as giving crispiness to products and lengthening shelf life. Palm oil can also enhance the quality and performance of many products. People often think it’s easy to replace palm oil with another ingredient, but that’s really not the case as doing so has quality implications. 

Another confusing element is the bad stories that people mostly see or hear — stories about rainforest destruction, wildlife being killed, communities being exploited. It’s all negative and complicated.  In the media deforestation is often linked to oil palm growing. We rarely hear the story that that palm oil is by far the most efficient vegetable oil crop compared to available alternatives.

Replacing palm oil with other vegetable oils will have severe implications for the amount of land that we would require, with even more forest and wildlife destruction as a result.

As conscious consumers, the only way to learn about this topic is by asking the right questions and reaching out to trusted sources. In addition to reaching out to Palm Done Right, we believe the World Wildlife Fund is another great resource for information. 

Q: How can consumers really know who to trust?

An increasing number of brands are updating their policies and voicing their commitments in the market. It is important to look out for brands who make commitments around palm oil.

Go to brands that you can trust, such as two of our partners, Dr Bronner and Nutiva. Ask them about their sourcing practices and their supply chains. Realistically we also need to be aware that there is still a lot of greenwashing out there and it continues to be confusing. We all need to push for more transparency to really understand what goes on behind to the scenes of the products we consume.

Q: What makes Ecuador so special?

Ecuador is a beautiful country. Personally, I am really taken by the amazing breadth of nature and wildlife in Ecuador which, for example, holds one of the highest concentrations of reptile and amphibian species per area unit.

ecuador
Forests are not destroyed for palm oil cultivation in Ecuador (Source: Jess Kraft/Shutterstock.com)

I’m very excited to be joining an expedition next May with an organization called Tropical Herping. This initiative strives to preserve tropical reptiles and amphibians, using tourism, photography, science and education. The goal is to replace fear of these special creatures with fascination and a desire to conserve. 

Regarding the palm oil that comes from Ecuador, we know that no forests have been cut or burned down for its cultivation. Palm is grown on pasture lands previously used for cattle ranching.

The Ecuadorian government has committed to investing in palm oil sustainability and innovation, through sustainable development, good agricultural practices and reactivating its jurisdictional RSPO certification plan (converting and certifying the entire country as sustainable).

Q: What is one story you’d like to share that shows the changes Palm Done Right is making?

One of our farmers, Mario Jervis Limongi, transitioned from conventional to organic farming when he started working with Natural Habitats. When I met with him in Ecuador, I asked what he considers to be the biggest impact he’s seen now that he’s farming organically. The first thing he mentioned was that he can literally breathe again on his plantation since he’s not spraying chemicals anymore. 

He also mentioned that he is very proud that he has created more jobs for the communities in his area. Since organic farming takes more time and requires more effort, he needed to hire extra personnel. As a result, he has created more income for families in his community, which makes him happy.

Q: What has been the biggest challenge in your work with Palm Done Right?

What I am voicing to our stakeholders is that, in order to advance the transition to deforestation-free, wildlife friendly, fair & social palm oil production, we need to reward producers who adopt green and ethical practices. We must also incentivize other producers to follow their model of sustainable practices. This was articulated in a recent article published by Reuters.

Many companies like to talk about their commitments and are highlighting projects that they might be doing, but they are not willing to pay more for responsibly produced ingredients and goods. I believe this is the biggest challenge to transitioning and truly scaling organic farming — understanding the true price and being willing to pay it.

organic farming crops
A transition to ethical & organic palm oil production is possible (Source: Smileus/Shutterstock.com)

Q: What has been most rewarding?

People are beginning to understand that they have a role to play and that they can influence the change we are seeking. I am really happy to see how the younger generations are demanding change. 

A growing number of organizations are starting to realize that change has to come from them, they will need to move into the right direction if they want to sustain their business in the long run. 

Q: According to the US Plant-Based Foods Association and the Good Food Institute, US retail sales of plant-based foods have grown 11 percent in the past year, bringing the total plant-based market value to $45 billion.  How has that change impacted the growth of palm oil and/or how do you see today’s health conscious consumer changing?

Consumers are more mindful, more demanding and they demand supply chain transparency. This heightened awareness means that more people are open to learning about the problems and that real solutions are available.

Q: What is one thing you wish conscious consumers knew about palm oil?

That palm oil is the most productive and therefore most efficient vegetable oil in the world. 

Oil palms provide at least six times more oil per hectare than alternative vegetable oils, like rapeseed and soy oil. The solution that your favorite brands should seek is to source and reward sustainable practices, instead of reformulating their products by replacing palm oil with alternative vegetable oils.

Q; What one action can consumers take to help change the way our food is produced/presented? 

Stop buying products from producers that are unethical. Do not accept unsustainable practices so producers know they can’t continue business in this way. Vote with your wallet and demand transparency of origin and production practices. 

Buy from companies that know their sources and are committed to talking action to do things right.

You can find the previous article here.

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