Thai smallholders aim for sustainable palm oil

Harvested oil palm fresh fruit bunches.Using paraquat for weed control in oil palm plantations can address a number of the criteria for sustainability defined by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). These include protecting soil and water quality, and reducing erosion. As part of a wider approach, smallholders undergoing RSPO certification are being shown how to grow more profitable crops while using all inputs more effectively and safely. Worldwide, 33% of palm oil is produced from crops grown by smallholders. In Thailand, however, smallholders supply 70% of the palm oil produced in the country, so this important group of growers has been a focus of attention for improving sustainability1.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

Facts about Thai oil palm smallholders

  • 120,000 farmers in Thailand grow oil palm
  • 98% of these are smallholders
  • 76% of land under oil palm in Thailand is cultivated by smallholders
  • 7 hectares average holding size
  • 70% of production is supplied by smallholders
Oil Palm (Elaeis guineenis) is the leading crop in the global production of vegetable oil. It provides by far the highest yields per hectare, typically 5 to 10 times that of crops such as soybeans, sunflower and canola (oilseed rape). Palm oil also has the particular quality of being a saturated fat and semi-solid rather than liquid at room temperature. The area of land under cultivation for palm oil has grown incredibly fast over the past few decades, especially in South-east Asia, leading to concerns about its environmental and social impact.  More information about oil palm cropping can be found here.  The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was founded in 2004 to ensure that all aspects of growing the crop, processing the oil and trade are conducted to the highest standards to protect the environment and society2. RSPO certification of those involved in the supply chain assures consumers that palm oil contained in the products they buy has been responsibly produced to the prescribed standards.

RSPO certification

RSPO has developed a set of principles and criteria for sustainability in the palm oil supply chain2. These underpin the certification scheme. Principle 4 describes the criteria for the use of best practices by growers and millers and indicates how these should be met. These include:
  • Maintaining or improving soil fertility
  • Minimising soil erosion


    Displacement of solids (soil, mud, rock and other particles) usually by the agents of currents such as, wind, water, or ice by downward or down-slope movement.

    Authoritative On-line References and Resources This site brings together reliable information on soil erosion from a wide range of disciplines and sources. It aims to be the definitive internet source for those wishing to find out more about soil loss and soil conservation.
    and degradation
  • Maintaining the quality and availability of surface and groundwater
  • Using integrated pest management (IPM


    A decision support system for crop protection which focuses on long-term prevention or suppression of pest problems with minimum impact on human health, the environment, and non-target organisms. IPM takes into consideration all available pest control techniques and tactics (cultural, mechanical, biological, chemical). IPM emphasizes the growth of healthy crops for better productivity with the least possible disruption to agroecosystems.

    Authoritative On-line References and Resources "The USDA's National Site for the Regional IPM Centers' Information System provides information about US commodities, pests and pest management practices, people and issues."
    ) systems to control weeds, insect pests and diseases
Using paraquat has a number of benefits to meet these criteria. It replaces the need to plow or hoe-out weeds, and with no residual effect in the soil weeds can be allowed limited re-growth before the next spray-round. Such a weed control regime helps to increase soil organic matter and anchor soil in place, preventing erosion. Paraquat is deactivated immediately on contact with soil and does not run-off


The occurrence of surplus liquid (like rain) which originates up-slope and is collected beyond the ability of the soil to absorb it. The surplus liquid then flows away over the surface to reach the nearest surface water (pond, lake, river).

Authoritative On-line References and Resources

US Geological Survey's Water Science School
to surface water or leach


The natural process by which water soluble substances are carried downward through the soil into groundwater.
to groundwater. It has a valuable role in IPM systems, including the management of weed resistance.
In addition, farmers rely on paraquat’s rainfastness to ensure weeds are controlled in a timely fashion, being able to spray to within 15-30 minutes of expected rain. After breaks in spraying, paraquat’s fast action means that it is easy to see where to start spraying again. More information on the use of paraquat in oil palm is available here. Thai smallholders being trained in the safe use of paraquatRSPO certification also demands the adoption a further two best practices:
  • Safe use of agrochemicals to protect health and the environment
  • Training for all workers, contractors and smallholders
Thai smallholders are being trained in the safe use of paraquat in a collaboration involving Mahidol University, the Ministry of Public Health and Syngenta.

Partnership farming project

The premium to RSPO certified growers for their palm oil is relatively small and not enough to incentivise most smallholders to become certified. The approach, therefore, is to link certification to the provision of knowledge and services to increase productivity. The German organisation Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ)  has been coordinating a project addressing the challenges facing smallholders working in the palm oil industry in Thailand. Called Partnership Farming, the project brings together stakeholders in government, society and business to create opportunities for independent smallholders seeking RSPO certification3. Better practices when RSPO certified mean higher profitability (FAO).Improving technical knowledge amongst smallholders means better working practices and optimal use of inputs. FAO studies have shown that despite only modest premium prices for fresh fruit bunches and the high cost of certification itself, smallholders trained in better management practices in the project can use the most expensive input, fertilizer, more efficiently, reducing rates and saving costs, and achieve better yields1. This approach may be worth in the order of an extra US$3000 each year to a typical smallholder.


  1. FAO (2012). Smallholders in global bioenergy value chains and certification.
  2. Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil
  3. Kukeawkasem, Y (2011). Creating opportunities for independent smallholders: partnership farming. 9th Annual Roundtable Meeting on Sustainable Palm Oil. 22-24 November 2011, Sabah, Malaysia.


The brand name of the leading paraquat product is Gramoxone.