Just as technology makes the world seem smaller by connecting distant populations and enabling local stories to garner global attention, our supply chains are becoming similarly more interconnected and globalized. Experts have seen connections between our unsustainable supply chains and the likelihood of more global zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19. This all underscores that in our interconnected world, local actions can have global impacts and global actions can impact local communities. We all have a role to play.
Take the palm oil supply chain. Even though the oil palm grows in tropical regions thousands of miles away, people in the United States and Canada are becoming more aware of the negative impacts for both local communities and the planet when palm oil is produced unsustainably. We are connected to these regions through our purchases. About 50 percent of the packaged products we buy contain palm oil. North American companies and consumers have an important role to play in the protection of ecosystems, communities and workers in the palm oil sector. In local communities where oil palms grow, sustainable practices can lead to the preservation and restoration of tropical ecosystems to produce global benefits, helping to address climate change.
The global connection of the palm oil supply chain was an inspiration for the founding of the organization that I work for: The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO is a not-for-profit, international membership organization that brings together over 5,000 members, stakeholders and innovators from almost 100 countries to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil production. When palm oil is produced and sourced according to the RSPO standards, it promotes positive environmental and social impacts for local and global communities.
Among the many RSPO stakeholders making positive impacts, I would highlight three from my home region of North America: SafeTraces; Ulula; and Rainforest Connection. These innovative organizations are using technology in innovative ways to address complex local issues, leading to significant global impacts.
Innovation in traceability
SafeTraces is a mission-driven organization with the goal to be the gold standard in technology for physical traceability that will address local challenges in a cost-effective way while being scalable globally. According to CEO Erik Malmstrom, SafeTraces has “developed edible, invisible, flavorless DNA based barcodes that take DNA sequences from seaweed encapsulated into food grade materials that can be placed on food products.” SafeTraces, an RSPO member since 2019, is expanding applications for its technology to sustainable and ethical palm oil supply chains. After application to fresh fruit bunches of the oil palm at the grow site, the barcode can be sampled later down the supply chain to trace products to their origin.
Malmstrom and his team are aware that accessibility to technologies can be a challenge, risking the exclusion of some communities and smallholders. Smallholders, or farmers who grow oil palm alongside subsistence crops where the family provides the majority of labor, make up roughly 40 percent of oil palm production globally and are an important part of the supply chain. However, with many smallholders combining their fruit before selling to a mill for processing, tracing the fruit to the smallholder farm of origin can be challenging. With stakeholders and consumers increasingly demanding traceability to the farm, these challenges can increase perceived risks and could lead to smallholder exclusion. Malmstrom explained that their technology can drive community level impact by helping companies to de-risk smallholder procurement, leading to greater smallholder involvement in the supply chain.
“Because deployment of this technology to tens of thousands of smallholders is daunting, engagement across the entire supply chain is needed,” Malstrom said. “Ensuring that deployment of useful technologies is inclusive of local communities and smallholders is a shared responsibility.”
Amplifying worker voices
Ulula is a Canadian-based social enterprise that uses accessible technology and communications solutions to connect stakeholders, including businesses, workers, communities and governments, to de-risk global supply chains. Its technology provides an opportunity for workers and communities to submit anonymous feedback on sensitive issues such as labor conditions. These tools not only benefit workers and communities but also the companies monitoring potential grievances in their global supply chains. Ulula’s tools facilitate a more effective dialogue through direct mass communications with workers, which provides data for stakeholders to identify worker focused priorities and launch programs focused on high-need areas.
Ulula was launched in 2013 to address issues around the mining industry but realized its technology could be scaled to amplify worker voices in other industries
“The agricultural sector typically consists of a large employee base outside of urban areas, making it harder to keep employees connected in a way that allows their voices to be unified,” Ulula’s director of programs Vera Belazelkoska said. “Ulula aims to bring together employees that are naturally farther apart to amplify worker voices. It is because of the RSPO bringing together thousands of global stakeholders in a spirit of openness and innovation that we knew our tools could provide social benefits in the palm oil sector.”
Protecting rainforests, wildlife and communities
Rainforest Connection, a recent RSPO member, creates acoustic monitoring systems called “guardians.” The technology originally was created to help prevent illegal deforestation and wildlife hunting in real-time by capturing sounds such as chainsaws, trucks and gunfire in remote areas. As the technology evolved, Rainforest Connection realized it also could capture wildlife sounds to help monitor biodiversity. Based in Texas, the technology has helped local communities across the world. Director of International Expansion Chrissy Durkin highlighted one success story in Brazil, where the technology helped the Tembé Indigenous People retake 15 percent of their total land area previously occupied by illegal loggers.
Rainforest Connection is exploring ways to scale the technology even further to work with actors in the palm oil supply chain.
“Figuring out how to help biodiversity thrive in human built environments like oil palm plantations is a challenge, but also an opportunity to find ways to conserve and coexist in shared spaces,” Durkin said. “Our technology can help oil palm growers identify priority areas for conservation while also monitoring illegal incursions in their concession areas.”
You can even download the app to listen to a tamarin in Peru, hear the sounds of the rainforest in Ecuador or if you are lucky, tune in to hear the call of an orangutan in Indonesia.
For solutions to global challenges to be effective, it’s important to understand and incorporate the context of local communities. SafeTraces, Ulula and Rainforest Connection embody the RSPO’s spirit of inclusiveness by bringing together locally affected communities from oil palm producing and consuming regions in innovative ways. As companies with technological advancements continue to bring the world together to address shared global challenges, it also serves as a reminder for us all to “think globally, act locally.”
By Cameron Plese