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Supply vs sustainability a key challenge for palm oil industry

  • Featuring
  • Aditya Kondalamahanty
  • Commodity
  • Agriculture Energy Transition Oil
  • Tags
  • United States
  • Topic
  • Biofuels and Energy

Global environmental, social and governance, or ESG, concerns are squeezing the palm oil industry from both ends, with anti-deforestation laws limiting supply growth on one side and growing biofuel mandates raising consumption on the other. And while analysts warn of an approaching deficit, producers scramble for solutions.

Palm oil has been the workhorse of the vegetable oil industry, with production doubling every 10 years in the last couple of decades, driven primarily by Indonesia and Malaysia. The two countries account for about 30% of the world's annual vegetable oil production of around 220 million mt and more than half of the world's vegetable oil exports.

For scale, Indonesia's annual exports of palm oil products are expected to be around 30 million mt in 2022-23, well above the combined vegetable oil exports of top sellers Russia (largest sunflower oil supplier), Argentina (largest soybean oil exporter), Ukraine, the EU and Canada, according to the US Foreign Agriculture Service. Malaysia, a formidable second to Indonesia, is forecast to export 18.4 million mt in 2022-23.

This rapid growth has, however, come at a cost: the deforestation of tropical rainforests, an issue which has gained critical mass in recent years, and pushed corporates and consumers to demand and secure better ESG commitments from the palm oil industry.

At the same time biodiesel mandates, which currently take up about 14% of the world's vegetable oil supplies, are being increased to greening targets set under the UN-backed Sustainable Development Goals.

Biodiesel mandates are now eating into an already tight global vegetable oil market, increasing food insecurity across the world. Analysts warn that at this rate a renewed food-versus-fuel debate along the lines of what happened with ethanol in 2008 may well be on the way.

At current growth rates, trade watchers predict the world's vegetable oil demand to grow to 280 million-290 million mt by 2030. However, the world's population is growing faster than expected, and along with climate shocks, conflicts and high costs, producers may have a tough time avoiding a deficit of vegetable oil supply, trade sources said.

"I am concerned that consumers being too complacent in covering future demand in the second half of the year and in 2023-24," Thomas Mielke, veteran industry analyst from Oil World, said at the Palm & Lauric Oils Price Outlook Conference (POC) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in March.

To cover future demand, the palm oil industry is now casting a wider net to balance growing needs with limited growth options.

Roadmap for future growth

Nothing is off the table now, palm oil executives said – increasing smallholder yields, mechanization of labor, reviving replanting programs and even sharing research in a fiercely competitive industry.

"There is no new land... We have to focus on high-value products and downstream development," said Lee Yeow Chor, managing director of IOI Corp Berhad, one of the largest palm oil companies in the world, and chairman of industry group Malaysian Palm Oil Association.

Malaysia capped its area under palm oil plantations to 6.5 million hectares. In the last few years, the planted area has shrunk to about 5.6 million hectares, with urbanization claiming agricultural land, statistics from the government regulator Malaysian Palm Oil Board showed.

One of the main reasons for low yields is that in vast parts of Malaysia and Indonesia timely replanting of oil palm trees has been neglected, Carl Bek Nielson, CEO of United Plantations, said at the POC, adding that smallholder yields were about 3.25 mt/hectare, half of 5.9 mt/hectare yield that best-in-class palm oil companies manage. Smallholders are classified in Malaysia as farmers who manage less than 100 acres, equivalent to 40.5 hectares.

Smallholders own 26% of Malaysia's oil palm-planted area and accounted for about 40% of the country's palm oil production as of 2021, according to the MPOB. In Indonesia, they account for 50% of the production, and 90% in third-largest producer Thailand.

However, uplifting smallholder yields is easier said than done as soaring input costs and strict sustainability criteria are discouraging new investments in the sector, industry leaders said.

Biofuel targets muddle demand

Biodiesel mandates allow governments of vegetable oil exporting nations to achieve three very important goals: securing a steady market for farmers, proofing against crude oil volatility and reducing greenhouse gas emission intensity of their country's fuels.

But biofuel policies in the US, the EU and Indonesia remain a major source of uncertainty in the vegetable oil sector, the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook report said in 2022.

Vegetable oil demand from the EU – the world's third largest buyer of palm oil – is set to fall by 2.1 million mt by 2030. However, this is more than offset by demand growth in other vegetable oil producing countries where biodiesel production is finding political and industrial backing.

For example, Indonesia's latest mandate to increase the ratio of biodiesel to gas oil to 35% from 30% in February is expected to divert an additional 2 million mt of palm oil from the food-use supply chain this year.

The country is currently conducting road trials for biodiesel with 40% palm oil content, known as B40, and has set a 2025 timeline for a wider adoption.

World's vegetable oil supply and demand outlook 2020-2031 (mil mt)
2020-21 2022 2023 2024 2025 2026 2027 2028 2029 2030 2031
Production 214.3 224.4 228.4 230.8 234.1 236.7 239.4 241.9 244.2 246.5 249
- Palm Oil 76.6 81.9 82.9 83.6 84.6 85.4 86.4 87.3 88.1 88.8 89.6
Consumption 213.8 223.5 228 230.9 233.8 236.4 239 241.5 244 246.3 248.7
- Food Use 140.7 144.1 147.5 149.7 152.2 154.4 156.6 158.5 160.5 162.4 164.3
- Biofuel 32.1 36.4 36.2 36.4 36.3 36.2 36.2 36.3 36.2 36.3 36.4
Source: OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2022-2031

Brazil, the world's largest soybean producer, raised its biodiesel blending mandate for 2023 to 12% from April. This will climb by a percentage point every year to 15% in 2026. The progressively growing mandate is still lower than prior market expectations of a hike to 15% from 2023.

Global biofuels demand will be the highest on record in 2023 despite challenges in production costs and global economy, analysts at S&P Global Commodity Insights said in its Biofuels Market Outlook report March 1.

In 2024, the world's biofuel demand is expected to grow further and is set to cross the 3 million barrels/day mark for the first time, S&P Global said.

S&P Global analysts also expect that agri-feedstock demand for renewable fuels will continue to grow particularly for oilseed and fats complex in the coming decade and beyond.