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Launch of new network to improve sustainable palm oil production

Biologists from the University of York are part of a new knowledge exchange network to broaden the base of scientific data to inform policy on sustainable palm oil production in South-East Asia.

The network,which is funded by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, will aid communications between policy makers and stakeholders in the region and researchers across the world.

Professor Jane Hill and Dr Jennifer Lucey from the Department of Biology at York together with scientists from Alterra - Wageningen University and the Royal Society SE Asia Rainforest Research Programme launched the new initiative in Singapore.

Harvested oil palm fruit bunches (credit: Ch'ien C Lee)

The network’s opening event involved representatives from Government ministries in South-East Asia, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO), WWF and others, joining scientists to discuss policy priorities for improving sustainability in the palm oil industry.

Oil palm is a highly productive tropical crop with many uses and is the world’s primary source of vegetable oil. Around 80 per cent of global production of palm oil comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, and the industry is vital for local economies.

But oil palm is grown in locations with hyper-diverse tropical rainforest and high carbon peat swamps, and there are social issues associated with labour, smallholders and land rights of local people. The challenge, therefore, is to find sustainable solutions that balance environment and social issues with economic demands and agricultural yield.

Dr Lucey said: “There is a growing body of scientific evidence on the social and environmental impacts of oil palm agriculture and methods for improving sustainability – the new network will promote uptake of this information into policy.”

Professor Hill added:  “This new knowledge exchange network will help facilitate effective communication between policy developers and scientists.”

The network was set up by the ‘Socially and Environmentally Sustainable Oil palm Research’ (SEnSOR) project which is examining sustainability in palm oil agriculture. The SEnSOR project has assessed the scientific knowledge gaps for testing and improving the RSPO principles and criteria for sustainability. The project will deliver essential baseline information, test recommended practices and assess the effectiveness of the RSPO certification standard to improve sustainability in the oil palm industry.

Darrel Webber, Secretary General of the RSPO said: “There is an urgent need for independent scientific research to examine the effectiveness of the RSPO sustainability standards, and this information will be provided by the SEnSOR project.”

Dr Glen Reynolds, of the Royal Society SE Asia Rainforest Research Programme said: “SEnSOR will directly address issues of sustainability in oil palm, and we want to make sure the outputs of the programme have maximum impact, by ensuring that the information is available to the people who develop policy.”

Dr Peter Van Der Meer, of Alterra-Wageningen University added:“We look forward to working with policy makers and stakeholders to discuss ways of improving sustainability.” 

Further information

  • The SEnSOR website was launched to coincide with the network meeting in Singapore, and more information can be found at
  • For more information about the Department of Biology at the University of York, please visit: