Aired On:
March 2, 2021

Palm oil is everywhere—it’s in chocolate bars, packaged foods, even beauty care products and biofuels. But its ubiquity has come at the expense of forest communities whose lands have been stolen and subsequently destroyed, fueling human rights abuses and the climate crisis. This is episode 3 of Nestle’s KitKat Unwrapped, and in it we’re exploring the slippery business of palm oil.

In this episode, we speak with Robin Averbeck, Forest Program Director at Rainforest Action Network (RAN), as they describe how Nestle and other Big Food companies have turned palm oil into one of the leading global drivers of deforestation. Then, we speak with Safianu Moro, Managing Director of Serendipalm Company Limited in Ghana. Here, small-scale farmers are growing oil palm regeneratively, on small plots of land that are rich in biodiversity. Taken together, their stories provide a striking contrast and a strong reminder: like most crops, palm oil is not inherently destructive or exploitative—the industrialized food system is.

Dana Geffner:
Two ingredients you expect to see in your chocolate bar are cocoa and sugar. Today we’re going to talk about another ingredient that you may not crave in your chocolate but is often included: Palm oil.

We began this series talking about Nestlé and their UK KitKat bar—how it was fairtrade certified, and then how Nestlé dropped that certification. We’ve been working our way through the ingredients in that bar, and hearing the stories and struggles of the people whose lives those ingredients impact.

Last episode, Ryan and Anna got two really different perspectives on sugar. They spoke to Karen Mapusua about the long dark history of cane sugar cultivation on the Pacific Island of Fiji, and the impact of Nestlé no longer buying from Fijian farmers. And we also heard from Andres Gonzalez of Manduvira, a farmer-owned sugar cooperative in Paraguay.

They are changing the sugar industry with a farmer-owned sugar processing plant–and a thriving web of fair trade relationships.

It’s inspiring to me to hear from the people building these alternatives–imagine if more small-scale farmers were processing more of their own crops. That would mean they could keep more of the price of the finished product in their own communities. And it would be those farmer-owned institutions who would be calling the shots, not some distant multinational corporation. And today we’re going to hear another striking contrast. In this episode, Anna is going to talk to two guests who reveal very different realities about palm oil. One fueled by the destructive corporate food system. And another possibility where small-scale farmers are actively regenerating the land.

Anna Canning:
Hi, It’s Anna. So, here’s the thing about palm oil. It’s in a staggering number of the packaged foods we eat. It’s in chocolate bars, chips, cookies. It’s in soap, it’s in makeup, it’s in instant ramen noodles. Start going through your cupboard—it’s everywhere. As I was doing the research for this episode, I had a little realization as I looked at my search engine bar. For every item I searched, there was this other list of marketing results that I could buy: all those processed foods that I just mentioned and then the palm-oil free version of each of those products.

And that’s the thing about this industrial food system. It’s very quick to take a crop – say oil palm, strip it of its origins, mass-produce it, exploit everything in sight, and then vilify it. And then, often those very same companies are all too ready to sell you that palm-oil free version of the thing too. That’s capitalism for you.

I’m old enough to remember when trans fats became the bad thing in the early-2000’s. Small amounts of trans fat exists naturally in the fats in meat or milk.

But most trans fats used in packaged foods were added by manufacturers and made out of ultra-processed oils. They showed up in the fine print ingredients as “partially-hydrogenated oil.” Big Food companies relied on these ingredients to give their packaged foods the right texture and keep them shelf-stable for an impossibly long time. Then starting in the ’90s, research started to show just how bad these artificially processed trans fats are for our health. Trans fats bans and labeling requirements forced food companies to reformulate. And voila! That’s how they came to our next ingredient: palm oil.

But palm oil isn’t a recent invention. It’s a traditional staple food in West Africa. And, like most traditional staples, people have grown it without destroying forests, endangering wildlife, or leaving a massive carbon footprint for a really long time. It’s not that palm oil is inherently destructive. It’s that Big Food companies, in their quest to make more and cheaper versions of everything, are exploitative and destructive.

In this episode, we’re going to talk to Safianu Moro, who works alongside small-scale farmers in Ghana  who are growing oil palm in a way that actively regenerates the land.  But first, I’m joined by Robin Averbeck of Rainforest Action Network to talk about that destructive food system—and the role that Nestlé plays in it.

Robin Averbeck:
Hi, my name is Robin Averbeck. I am the Forest Program Director for Rainforest Action Network, and Rainforest Action Network is an organization that is based in the U.S. But we’re a global organization, we’ve been around for 35 years and campaigning to protect the world’s forests, stand up for human rights and fight global climate change. And we do that through strategic campaigns and partnerships with frontline communities.

Anna Canning:
How did you personally get started working on issues around palm oil?

Robin Averbeck:
I had already been working on and thinking about environmental issues specifically since high school. When I was in high school, I was the president of my environmental club and went to college with the intention to study environmental policy and work on that. When I was a young activist, I really thought of the environment and I was also keen on animal rights activism. I was a young vegan, but I really got into that work partly because I thought, well, human rights is really important, but humans also can speak for themselves. Well, now that I’ve grown up and learned much more about these issues, I understand that, you know, human rights and environmental issues are very much interlinked. And so have been working at the intersection of those issues for the past 10 years and in earnest. And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to come to Rainforest Action Network because we really see the interlinkage of human rights and environmental destruction. Knowing that in fact often before we see things like deforestation, we see that communities are having their land stolen from them.  And then the deforestation happens. And then after that, communities are often not even offered the jobs that come of those industries. It’s often migrant workers in the case of the palm oil industry that are brought in and often facing really terrible working conditions in many cases that can even be forced labor, modern-day slavery.

Anna Canning:
Not only is the treatment of people and the land on which they live connected, Robin points out that even though the devastation caused by palm oil plantations is out of sight for those of us in the U.S., it still impacts us all.

Robin Averbeck:
Working to protect and stand with communities who are defending their lands is really critical to addressing and ending deforestation and climate change, which we all are experiencing the impacts of.

Robin Averbeck:
I myself am sitting here in San Francisco right now which at this time in place, I’m literally not supposed to be walking outside because of forest fires that are happening, which are a result of climate change. And so, you know, this issue is really personal for all of us everywhere, I think. And that has really hit home for myself and for many people who don’t think about and work on climate change every day over this past month where we’ve been facing these superstorms on the East coast and forest fires and smoke and impacts on the West Coast.

Anna Canning:
Palm oil itself is not bad. The oil palm tree is a species native to Africa and other humid tropical places. It’s the industrial palm oil production methods that are harmful and are a major contributor to global warming. Remember when Big Food companies rushed to switch from trans fats to palm oil in packaged food? Well, that meant that suddenly oil palm plantations were a booming industry.

Robin Averbeck:
Palm oil is not inherently bad in any way. Palm oil can be produced responsibly. But unfortunately what we’ve seen, what we call conflict palm oil is produced, with the destruction of forests, with the draining of peatlands and with the abuse of human rights, both local communities, indigenous peoples and workers. And so I think what we have seen is a drive towards a further opening up of conflict palm oil practices and company operations. And so that is why we’ve seen this acceleration towards more deforestation. As I mentioned earlier, palm oil is one of the leading global drivers of deforestation.

Anna Canning:
Indonesia and Malaysia are two of the key producers of palm oil. The expansion of palm oil plantations there made Indonesia the 4th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world in 2015. They’ve since been overtaken by other countries. But the emissions of those climate-crisis inducing gases continue.

Palm oil plantations are expanding into tropical forests and peatlands across Indonesia. Tropical peatlands are wet and swampy. Their saturated soil can hold up to 20 times more carbon than ordinary dirt–an amazing carbon sink.  But as they are drained to make room for palm plantations, these once soggy peatlands dry out and burn. And instead of absorbing carbon down from the atmosphere, these burning peatlands release the carbon that they’ve been storing, further spurring climate change.

Likewise, logging transforms tropical forests from climate solutions into sources of greenhouse gas emissions. When we talk about the impacts of land use changes on the climate, this is what is being talked about—that change from wet, swampy carbon storehouse to fiery greenhouse gas emitter.

This isn’t a natural process. There are people making the decisions to do this.

Robin Averbeck:
So, you know, there are major, major players in the palm oil industry, in both Indonesia, Malaysia also globally, expanding into Latin America and Africa. So what we see is that, you know, companies on the ground are driving these impacts, but beyond that, of course, why are they doing that? Well, they’re selling the palm oil to companies that want it, and in this case, that’s many of the well-known brands, products consumers all across the world use every day. So, the likes of Nestlé, major companies like Mondelez, Colgate, Palmolive, Procter and Gamble. These are just a few of the major consumer brands who are purchasing palm oil and fueling these abuses, whether it be human rights abuses or deforestation and climate emissions. In addition to that, the world’s largest banks and financiers are also key players in this. They provide the funding to these companies, to open up and expand in new areas and, and perpetuate these problematic practices that are resulting in human rights, abuses, deforestation, and climate emissions.

Anna Canning:
Palm oil is big business. It’s appealing as an ingredient because, once processed, it’s got a long shelf life before it gets rancid.  It’s stable at pretty high temperatures, which is important if you don’t want melty chocolate.  And it’s cheap, but that low price comes at a high cost.

Robin Averbeck:
Because of some of these conditions I’ve described where palm oil is often being produced in a way that is not paying for the goods that is required, i.e. not paying for the forests that are being deforested, not paying properly their workforce, and not paying the communities whose lands they’ve taken. So it’s cheap all that to say it’s cheap and Palm oil is also very appealing as a substitute because of its low price.

Anna Canning:
The palm oil itself isn’t the only moneymaker. Not only are these companies exploiting the land and the people involved, but they are also cashing in on cutting down the trees to set up the plantations.

Robin Averbeck:
A lot of these palm oil companies are integrated conglomerates, so they’re not just palm oil companies. A lot of them have associated pulp and paper operations. And there’s also a high value on having, uh selling timber that would come from a cleared rainforest. And so within the context of Indonesia, which is where we work most frequently and most deeply, what we see is that companies are being—palm oil companies are being handed permits. But it’s not just the value of growing the palm oil once it’s there there’s additional value for clearing the rainforest and selling that off or feeding it into pulp mills that may or may not be associated with their conglomerate.

Anna Canning:
This piece of information broke me just a little bit when I was talking to Robin. It’s not just that there is money to be made in selling palm oil because of the way that all the human and environmental costs have been passed off. These same companies are also cashing in on the actual destruction of the rainforest as well. There’s little incentive to stop clearing forests because it’s profitable. In the short term at least. In the medium to long term –well, it’s clear that we’re already paying the price of cutting down these trees.

So, palm oil production is connected to both environmental disasters and human rights violations of communities around the world. But where is Nestlé in all this? Turns out, they’ve been there since the start.

Robin Averbeck:
Nestlé was an early target of a Greenpeace campaign. So one of the earliest campaigns that was run on Palm oil in 2010 was run on Nestlé. There’s a very famous video that went viral where someone opened up a Kit Kat bar and bit into an orangutan finger.

Anna Canning:
The video parodies a Nestlé ad from the time. Picture a dull office scene. A guy in a white shirt feeds paper after paper into a shredder until the familiar slogan shows on the screen: “Have a break?” The camera cuts to the guy’s hands holding a Nestlé Kit Kat bar – Fairtrade seal and all—over his keyboard. He peels back the label, obliviously smiling at his boss who’s walking by. We – and all his co-workers—watch as he breaks off a piece of that KitKat bar.

Anna Canning:
And it’s a hairy orangutan finger in the chocolate coating.

A drop of blood pools on the white keyboard. Blood drips from his mouth. The guy still doesn’t notice what’s going on as he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, smearing blood across his chin.

Robin Averbeck:
It was very, you know, explosive classic Greenpeace style video that got a lot of attention.

Anna Canning:
The screen cuts to white letters on a red background: “Give the orang-utan a break” as the sound of a chainsaw kicks in. The camera pans from a mother and baby orang-utan in a tree to a bleak logged landscape. Text flashes across the screen that reads  “Stop Nestlé buying palm oil from companies that destroy the rainforests.”

Robin Averbeck:
Nestlé tried to shut it down and actually asked YouTube to remove the video. And that went viral and of course brought them a lot of bad press.

Anna Canning:
Remember back in the first episode? When we talked about campaigners who called Nestlé out as “Baby Killers” for their formula debacle? This reminds me of that a little bit. If you don’t like the criticism, just shut it down. But corporate PR has gotten way more savvy since the ’70s. Instead of just trying to shut down Greenpeace, Nestlé tried to greenwash the situation.

Robin Averbeck:
So out of that, Nestlé became an early mover to adopt on paper, a commitment to no deforestation in their palm oil supply. However, since then, Nestlé has continued to try and position itself as a leader in the pack, but has failed to deliver on its promises. So over the past decade, since that early commitment in 2010, they still have failed to show that they are delivering on promises of no deforestation in addition to their other commitments around no expansion on peatland and no human rights abuses in their palm oil supply chain.

Anna Canning:
So back to Nestlé’s commitments that you were talking about, they made a commitment to go deforestation free. You know, I was looking at their website on that the other day. And I think they have a public commitment to be 100% responsibly sourced palm oil by 2020. We’re sitting in 2020 now, before I even ask if that’s actually happening, what does that claim mean?

Robin Averbeck:
Well, that’s a good question because something that we have certainly our own definition for what does responsibly sourced mean? And I think on the most basic level for RAN and for our allies, “responsibly sourced” needs to mean that the company has independently verified that they are meeting the principles of their policies. So that includes no deforestation, no expansion on peatland. No human rights abuses, respect for FPIC, no land grabbing, respect for labor rights.

Anna Canning:
Can you define FPIC for folks who aren’t familiar with that term?

Robin Averbeck:
Sorry. Yes. FPIC means the Free Prior and Informed Consent. And essentially what that means in simple terms is that communities, whether it’s Indigenous peoples or local communities who have rights to lands have the ability to say yes or no to whether something, a palm oil plantation or any other operation would move forward on their, on their lands. And the way that things typically happen is that communities are not actually given the proper process or ability or right to say, no. They’re often coerced, manipulated, threatened, bribed, et cetera, into saying yes, and are offered very little alternative. And so this is what we see. We see a continual stealing of communities’ lands, which then results in further opening up of forests.

But back to your original question of responsibly sourced, what does this mean? So I said, what it means to RAN is that it has to be credibly verified that it’s met all of these principles that the company says it will, but what it means to Nestlé and the way that they’ve undertaken this approach to responsible sourcing is that they work with second party consultants, who they hire and paid directly to say that they have met their policy.

Anna Canning:
Not to get too far into the weeds here, but this distinction that Robin’s making is useful when you hear a company making lots of claims about their practices. At Fair World Project, when we talk about certifications, we’re talking about third-party certifications. That means that the company didn’t write the standards, and that there’s a separation there to keep businesses from influencing the certifiers doing the inspections.  That extra layer between who cuts the check and who checks off that you’re doing a good job –that’s important if you want to eliminate conflicts of interest.

Robin Averbeck:
And, there’s a lot of things that are pretty concerning about that. One is that, you know, the company is saying, trust us, they’re paying a second party and relying on what they say to say, this is now responsibly sourced. They’re not making that public. So they don’t make public what these assessments are, and they’re not open to outside parties, whether they’re consumers or watchdogs, like RAN to say, is this really adding up?

Anna Canning:
Quick rewind back to the first episode again. Remember when Franck and Fortin were talking about Nestlé’s CocoaPlan? That standard that Nestlé claims focuses on better farming and making all things better? Yeah, those standards are also written by Nestlé. And they aren’t making those public either.

Robin Averbeck:
And they also don’t involve all of the elements of what they’ve committed to. So they’re really looking much more heavily on deforestation in particular, and often ignoring or sidestepping their commitments on human rights.

Anna Canning:
Robin is laying out what is at this point a pretty common corporate playbook. Get called out for atrocities in your supply chain. Make a giant, much publicized pledge to fix the problem. Then start redefining the problem and writing and rewriting the goals. Then pay someone to say that yes, you are in fact 70% of the way to fixing that problem. What Robin’s saying about palm oil is pretty similar to what Nestlé has done on deforestation and child labor in their cocoa supply chains. And amid all this redefining of goals and shifting timelines, what does it even mean when Nestlé makes a claim about “responsibly sourced”?

Robin Averbeck:
We really can’t say because it’s not transparent. So I think that in order to be able to really say is Nestlé meeting the goals, we need full transparency on what they’re doing. So they need to disclose what it is that they’re calling “responsibly sourced” and the assessments that are backing that up. I think one other issue that’s at play for us is you know, it’s really important that these companies are making sure that they enforce these standards, not only in their direct supply chain, but to the companies that they’re buying from across the board. And one of the reasons for that is that it actually takes three years from the time of starting a palm oil plantation. So you would, you know, in the case of there being forest there, come in, cut the forests and plant palm oil. And then three years later, you would have palm oil fruit that you would sell to market. So that palm oil, you know, the impacts of deforestation, the potential stealing of communities’ lands that has already taken place three years earlier. So Nestlé, if they start buying that and say, well, it’s deforestation free. Because it took place earlier, well, that’s simply unacceptable. We need them to also be fulfilling those pledges more broadly. So it has to be that that company is not carrying out deforestation at any point, prior or across their operations.

Anna Canning:
This lack of transparency is a theme throughout our KitKat conversations. Nestlé’s long convoluted supply chains  let them point the finger elsewhere when the exploitation that’s baked into their model is revealed. The system is  designed that way. And this extra bit about timing? Once again, Nestlé resets the finish line and the starting line too, redefining what counts as “ethical” and “responsible.”

I think it’s pretty clear by now that the corporate MO is to keep shifting the definitions for all of us. Keep redefining and rebranding in hopes we, the people reading their labels, might get confused or distracted by their latest initiative. Nestlé’s not the only guilty party here, by the way. You’ll see this across corporate social responsibility programs.

But outside of all this, what would it look like to have a truly fair and sustainable palm oil trade?

Robin Averbeck:
I think that we see that a fair and sustainable palm oil would be one where at the outset communities’ rights would be respected. At the point of palm oil permit being allocated, communities would truly have the right to say yes or no. We want this to proceed on our land. And, and it would be subject to a proper negotiation with that community about the extent where it would go, et cetera. In addition to that, the forest areas and peatlands, the critical ecosystems would be mapped and protected. And this would also be done in negotiation and agreement with the community. And, you know, following from that then the production and the way that the palm oil was harvested, would be done in such a way, ideally that communities, if they said yes and wanted those jobs, then they would also be preferentially offered them. And any other workers who came to work on the plantation or farm would of course have their full rights respected and upheld, and ideally also be able to negotiate those freely through independent unions and collective bargaining. So there’s no reason that that can’t exist.

Anna Canning:
Actually, there probably is a reason that it doesn’t exist. The status quo is cheaper for Nestlé and it doesn’t require that they give up even the least bit of power. But Robin’s point stands – there’s no reason that shouldn’t exist.

Robin Averbeck:
And then at the company level, all of the brands and buyers at every level of the supply chain should have full traceability and transparency around their supply chain. So they should know exactly where it’s coming from. They need to know the farms and plantations where it’s being harvested. And then of course check, do proper independent verification to say, yes, we know this is meeting our standards. And we have proof and we have evidence from independent, and credible sources, not consultants that we pay. And there would be transparency around that. So both transparency of what plantations are you sourcing from and transparency on the verification, that it is meeting these. We think that this is completely possible. It is a shift from the way the industry is currently operating, but there’s no reason that it can’t become the norm.

Anna Canning:
And how has Rainforest Action Network [been] working towards making that the norm?

Robin Averbeck:
Well, we’re working in a lot of different ways, but I think the most significant one is that we’ve just launched a new campaign this year called Keep Forest Standing. And we’re targeting some of the world’s biggest brands and banks, including Nestlé and calling on them to keep forests standing and respect the rights of communities. So for many of them that means really delivering on the pledges that they’ve already made. As I mentioned, it’s been 10 years since Nestlé made their own. Many other companies have made similar pledges. So we are mobilizing consumers, citizens around the world to stand in solidarity with communities who are fighting to protect their lands and fighting to keep their forests standing. And we will continue in that endeavor over the next years and, and really hope that folks can join us in that.

Anna Canning:
Awesome. Well, that sounds like a way that our listeners can get involved if folks are listening and want to get involved in that, how can they do that?

Robin Averbeck:
The easiest way is to find us, on the web, you can go to ran.org or you can visit us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, sign up for our lists and sign up to be an activist in our campaigns. We would love to have you, and the world’s forests definitely need you as well.

Anna Canning:
So in just a few decades, Nestlé and their Big Food buddies swapped unhealthy trans fats for palm oil. At this point, something like 50% of packaged goods contain palm oil. It’s in baked goods, in makeup, in fuel for cars and trucks in Europe – it’s everywhere. The push for a cheaper ingredient is driving the destruction of the homes of thousands of people. It’s also pushing us all closer to an uninhabitable planet.

But, it’s not the palm oil itself that’s to blame. The blame lies with the Big Food companies and the unchecked capitalism that happily sells us both destructive packaged foods and whatever their latest “Ethical” option might be. However it is that they are defining “ethical” at that particular moment.

But industrial palm oil isn’t the full story. For our next segment, we go to Ghana, in West Africa, where palm oil is much more than a cheap filler ingredient.

Safianu Moro:
Palm is so…it’s a special crop. I say special because you hardly throw any part of it away. Every part of the oil palm tree it’s, it’s very useful and that’s in itself is very unique. So I actually have so much love for it. It’s a special crop and it’s very common in our area. It’s something that virtually gives farmers regular income. And when you are part of a project that is even organic and fair trade, that makes it even more special because you are contributing directly to taking people out of poverty and then also improving their livelihoods.

Anna Canning:
That’s Safianu Moro.

Safianu Moro:
I’m managing director of Serendipalm Company Limited in Ghana.

Anna Canning:
Serendipalm is doing something that’s completely the opposite of what we just heard about.  Instead of destroying forests, Serendipalm’s farmer members are growing new ones.

Safianu sets the stage, describing what this kind of palm oil production looks like:

Safianu Moro:
So for a hectare of an oil palm field of a Serendipalm member, farmer walking through such a field it’s largely green all over, whether you watch down or upwards, you know, oil palm fields, the palm fronds are largely green in our fields, largely because of the organic matter that’s incorporated into the soil and there’s vegetation cover on the soil.

Safianu Moro:
So anytime farmers harvest, they leave the palm fronds in the field, in different sections of the field so that they can decompose and add organic matter to the soil. Synthetic fertilizers or chemicals are not allowed to be applied on the fields. And then there’s no burning, bush burning. And so you can’t just gather some dry fronds and then try to plan to burn. It’s not allowed in an organic oil palm field. So largely all over the field it’s mostly green. Those are things you would easily see when you walk into an oil palm field belonging to a Serendipalm member farmer.

Anna Canning:
This lush, green farm is what Safianu calls,

Safianu Moro:
Dynamic agroforestry.

Anna Canning:
Agroforestry is literally combining farming and forests. Interplanting a diverse mix of oil palm trees and other crops in ways that mimic a natural forest canopy. This dynamic agroforestry that Safianu is talking about is one piece of a whole system that members of Serendipalm are building.

Safianu Moro:
Serendipalm Company Limited produces organic and fair trade crude palm oil for exports largely into the United States. And then also to customers in Germany. In the United States it’s Dr. Bronner’s whom we sell to.

Anna Canning:
Serendipalm works with 781 small-scale farmers. That’s farmers who have something like two and a half to ten acres of land. And that lush, green landscape that he told us about? That is a key part of their work to support small-scale farmers.

Safianu Moro:
We also provide other training to them in the area of dynamic agroforestry to try and help farmers move away from just planting oil palm, in a monoculture manner to mixing with several other tree species such as cocoa, mangos, you know, avocados, citrus, plantains, bananas, cassava, several other crops, all on the same plot. So that is our current direction. Currently, we also started regenerative. We are one of the projects that was selected for the pilot stage of the Regenerative Organic Certification.

Anna Canning:
Regenerative Organic Certification is a new label that just launched this summer. It adds on to regular organic rules about not using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers with standards for social fairness, animal welfare, and soil health. The goal? A holistic approach to growing crops that is good for people and the planet, not just redefining “sustainable” like so many of the Big Food initiatives we were talking about earlier.

Safianu Moro:
In addition to that, there are several support systems we provide to smallholder farmers, including, distributing oil palm seedlings to all of them on interest-free loans so that they can expand their fields. We also provide interest-free loans to farmers for farm maintenance as part of our fair trade responsibilities. The dynamic agroforestry and pruning trainings have been organized for them also for free.

Anna Canning:
These programs to plant and keep the trees healthy are one part of Serendipalm’s work. Training farmers and tending trees are part of a broader commitment to community development. The money for this work comes from fair trade premium funds. The fair trade premium fund is an additional sum on top of the fair trade purchase price and on top of the organic premium that’s paid to the farmer organization to fund community projects.

In this case, it works out to about 10% of what’s paid to the farmer, the so-called farm gate price. Farmers who work with Serendipalm elect representatives from amongst themselves. Those representatives sit on a fair trade committee and decide how best to spend that premium money. Some of the projects they have invested include water and sanitation facilities for the community, school supplies for children, and medical facilities. And then there are also projects that focus on building up these food forests by distributing seedlings, and coordinating trainings.

It all comes back to this vision of a dynamic agroforestry system that Safianu explains. The farmers aren’t just growing oil palm.

Safianu Moro:
Some of them also had other fields such as cocoa fields, which is also mono crop or citrus alone. But our idea has been to try and get biodiversity in the field. So how do we get farmers to bring all these crops together on the same land? And mimic the natural forest, you know. And that is exactly what we are doing with them in the area of dynamic agroforestry and it’s working really well.

Anna Canning:
This dynamic agroforestry Safianu describes is backed by researchers  as a climate solution. Instead of fueling climate change, this way of planting palm helps build healthy forests. And not only are those forests good for our planet and all of us who live here, it…

Safianu Moro:
Allows farmers to actually make more money out of their fields, make good use of their lands and then protect themselves whilst cropping, and then also protecting the land itself.

Safianu Moro:
Ultimately it actually more than doubled the income you would get from just planting oil palm alone, or cocoa alone. The yield from the oil palm field would reduce, but you have yields from cocoa, you have yields from mango, citrus, avocado, and several other crops. So in the end, you know, when you aggregate those, you, the farmer makes more money than if he had just oil palm alone.

Anna Canning:
I ask Safianu what the farmers he works with do with this amazing diversity of crops.

Safianu Moro:
There’s actually a local market for those crops. Farmers consume some and then sell some into areas in Accra.

Anna Canning:
That’s the capital city of Ghana.

Safianu Moro:
There’s actually a market for lots of those crops locally, and we are working on those that we can also export to get some premium for farmers.

Anna Canning:
While we hear a lot about palm oil causing deforestation around the globe, that’s not what is currently happening in Ghana. In the regions where Serendipalm is based, much of the tree cutting happened several generations ago. In this area, the contrast is between mono-crop plantations and these diverse food farms that mimic natural forests.

I’m going to let Safianu describe the contrast for you because it has one of my favorite new facts. We start in a conventional palm oil plantation:

Safianu Moro:
You wouldn’t want to walk in a field like that after walking in a Serendipalm farmer member’s, herbicides and synthetic pesticides on the land over the years. They look very dry sometimes, no vegetation cover at all. And because of burning, you hardly find any animals like those millipedes centipedes on such land. So you would find snails in a Serendipalm farm and sometimes even crabs create holes and then stay in there because you know, they come out and then get back into those holes. But for a conventional farm you know, that is very dry. You hardly find such wildlife on them.

Anna Canning:
Crabs are a common part—did i hear you correctly that crabs are common on an organic oil palm plantation?

Safianu Moro:
They are around wet wetlands. So we have some fields that are swampy in nature and you’d find them there, you know, in organic fields.

Anna Canning:
I had no idea. I didn’t know that it would be that there are crabs in organic Palm oil fields. Now I just have a picture of little crabs, like waddling around in palm oil plantations. I love it.

As Safianu describes it, the members of Serendipalm have a very different approach to farming from the big plantations that surround them. Many are owned by Ghana Oil Palm Development Company, they may even be sold as sustainable or deforestation-free. But there’s a big difference in how they treat the land. And for Safianu, it’s clear: Those distant corporate owners can afford to degrade the soil because they aren’t connected to the land.

Safianu Moro:
For smallholder farmers, because they also get their food crops from the same parcels of land to feed their families they want to also keep it very, you know fertile and, and sustainable so that they can keep feeding their family.

Anna Canning:
Palm oil is a part of feeding families here—and not just by providing a steady income. I asked Safianu how this staple crop is used in the communities that grow it.

He invites me to imagine that I’ve come to visit. If I were staying there,

Safianu Moro:
You’d have to take some food with palm oil in it because of how nutritious it is and how it improves your eyesight. So palm nut is actually used for palm nut soup. And this is used to prepare a meal called fufu.

Safianu Moro:
So fufu it’s made from boiled cassava. You know, cassava right? It’s manioc.

Anna Canning:
Yeah.

Safianu Moro:
So you boil, peel it when, when you pick the tube from the farm, they are peeled, and then boiled. After boiling it’s pounded. It’s, you know, it’s very starchy, so it’s pounded and then served with palm nut soup, or with like soup, but most people would prefer the palm nut soup because it’s heavy for people who are engaged in laborious work.

Safianu Moro:
And apart from fufu, with palm nut soup you can eat it also with rice, just boiled rice. And I also take that a lot in my home together with my family. There’s also plantain that can be boiled and then mashed once you mix it with some palm oil to give it some nice taste and you know, flavor, and it tastes really, really good. Lots, lots of people would also use palm oil for what we call Red Red and it’s served in restaurants in Ghana, most restaurants in Ghana, Red Red. So it’s beans, boiled beans mixed with curry and then palm oil. And you can use it to also fry plantains and then serve it together with the Red Red. And it’s really, really delicious and nutritious. It’s one of the foods that medical doctors recommend for people who are vegetarian.

Anna Canning:
I absolutely know what I need to eat if I ever go to Ghana.

Safianu Moro:
Traditionally, they are also used for pouring libation. So you would, they would normally also mash it with plantain and then just use it to pour libation to pacify the gods. So it tells you how valuable the oil palm tree is to people locally, especially in West Africa.

Anna Canning:
My mouth is watering hearing these descriptions. And that brings me back to our main conversation – palm oil. I don’t know about you, but my mouth doesn’t usually water at the mention of palm oil when I read the back of a cheap chocolate bar or a bag of chips. And that is what our industrial food system has done to palm oil. It has taken this special crop that Safianu describes falling in love with and turned it into a destructive commodity. It has taken this household staple and turned it into just another industrial additive. From something that can support the livelihoods of small-scale farmers, families (and crabs!) to something that is destroying the forest homes of people and animals, and our planet. And all for the sake of profit for these Big Food companies.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Anna Canning:
So what would fair sustainable palm oil production look like to you?

Safianu Moro:
For me, a fair sustainable palm oil production would be crude palm oil that was produced from smallholder fields. That’s had the environment in mind actually during the entire process, processes of its cultivation. You would want to embark on production practices that protects the soil, that protects the farmer who crops it, you know, and something that gives the farmer ultimately an income to survive. I would consider palm oil production that is fair and sustainable to be something that all people involved throughout the production processes are compensated fairly. To compensate workers fairly, you ensure they earn above the minimum wage in the country, farmworkers are also given the opportunity and similarly, and for farmers, you ensure all the support services they need are provided to them to access international markets. And ensure they get organic premiums and also fair trade premiums comes back to developing their communities and then improving their living standards and those of their family and their community members.

Anna Canning:
There’s such a contrast here between what Safianu just described and the industrial model that Robin talked about. These diverse landscapes that the small-scale farmers he works with are managing, they’re rich not just with palm trees, but mangoes, avocados, and crabs (I’m not over that part yet!). I could leave you with the simplistic picture of a palm oil that’s crab-friendly vs one that is killing orangutans. But as vivid a visual as that is, it’s not the whole story.

Nestlé has the power to decide to make their next campaign a crab-friendly palm oil. Because that’s exactly the sort of thing that they – and all these other Big Food companies– are good at. Dreaming up a new ad campaign to redefine sustainability & greenwash over their whole exploitative model. Back in our first episode, Fortin and Franck who work with cocoa farmers in Cote d’Ivoire call it as it is. By dropping Fairtrade certification, Nestlé is just doing the same thing again. Redefining what is ethical & plastering their supply chains over with more marketing and more empty commitments.

Over and over again, in all these conversations, we see how ready Nestlé is  to make all sorts of pledges that make for very nice marketing. But the actual story remains the same. Nestlé is a massive corporation – the biggest food company in the world, by their own claims. They have the means to make a whole lot of change across all their supply chains. But instead, they continue to put short-term profits before just about everything else. And in this episode, we’ve heard just how high the stakes are–we’re talking about a planet that remains liveable for all of us.

In this series, we’ve been hearing from people who are building an alternative vision for our food and farming systems. The idea that we could have the chocolate that brings so much joy to so many of us without exploiting the people who grow and make this crop possible, without destroying forests and making our planet uninhabitable.

That’s it for this time. Thanks so much for joining us on For a Better World. Please be sure to subscribe to listen to our next episode where we’ll wrap up this series. We’ll reflect on that little fair trade label that went on a KitKat bar, and the big question of just what it would take to make this vision for a more fair, sustainable chocolate bar not just something that gets marketed to us but a world that we can actually live in every day.

Dana Geffner:
You’ve been listening to For a Better World, a podcast by Fair World Project. If you enjoyed the show, make sure to subscribe, review, and share with your friends.

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Fair World Project is a nonprofit organization and we rely on donations to keep our work going. If you liked what you heard or learned something new, consider becoming a monthly donor. Your contributions help us continue to bring stories like these from around the globe. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to stay up to date between episodes.

For a Better World is made possible by our small (but mighty!) team:

Our show is edited by Stefanie De Leon Tzic

Jenica Caudill is our Producer

Anna Canning is our script writer

Our storytellers are Ryan Zinn and Anna Canning

Our music was composed by Mark Robertson

And I’m your host and the Executive Director of Fair World Project, Dana Geffner.

Thanks for listening.

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