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JAKARTA: When the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was set up two decades ago, as the palm oil industry struggled in the wake of major Southeast Asian forest fires that provoked global outrage, reining in tropical forest losses was a top priority.

But today, critics question the palm oil watchdog’s continued relevance as it struggles to manage other fast-rising concerns, from the industry’s climate change impact to its limited benefits for small-scale farmers - and whether price-sensitive Asian buyers can be persuaded to buy greener oil.

Octogenarian MR Chandran - the head of Malaysia’s palm oil growers’ association when he helped create the global standard for sustainability - said reducing emissions and tackling climate change will be crucial in the coming decades.

“Addressing climate change (is something) we have to do,” Chandran, now an advisor to the watchdog, said at the organisation’s 20th anniversary meeting last month. “Our carbon footprint has to be addressed.”

Palm oil is the world’s most widely used edible oil, found in everything from margarine to soap, but it has faced scrutiny from green activists and consumers, who say its production has provoked rainforest and peatland loss, fires and worker exploitation.

Since its start in 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has grown to more than 5,500 member growers, traders, retailers and advocacy groups. It has gradually tightened standards to include a ban on felling forests and converting peatlands for plantations, as well as greater protection for labour and land rights.

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