Orang-utans, some of our nearest relatives, may become extinct within 12 years. This is due to forest clearances to make way for palm-oil plantations producing fatty ingredients for products such as margarine, pastries, biscuits and cosmetics.
Facing a bleak future: this baby orang-utan is losing her home to palm oil plantations (Baby Orangutan. © Orangutan Foundation)
The reports were published by the campaign organisations Friends of the Earth, Sustain: The alliance for better food and farming, and by the sustainability policy organisation Forum for the Future. They spell out the bleak message: If we do not find ways to control and police our exploitation of natural resources for food, then natural habitats will be destroyed forever, with devastating implications for wildlife, small-scale food producers and our health.
The message may not seem new, but the level of urgency has moved up a grade. These specialist organisations are talking in terms of years rather than decades for the permanent loss of certain natural resources and habitats that provide homes for a diverse range of animals and plants, livelihoods for many of the poorest people on the planet, and valuable food and other resources.
The solutions they propose are sobering. To save orang-utans, there is talk of a total ban on unsustainable palm oil that appears in one in ten food products on supermarket shelves.The Food Commission: The high cost of cheap food
The oil for ape scandal: how palm oil is threatening orang-utan survival - Eldis
To make the same point, Greenpeace gave us this shock ad back in 2010:
greenpeace - kitkat - Ask Nestlé CEO to stop buying palm oil from destroyed rainforest - YouTube
Last year, serious pollution in the home of the Orang-utan was set off by illegal fires - which was about clearing forest for palm oil plantations:
Futures Forum: Singapore smog and palm oil
Back in 2007, the only supermarket joining the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was Asda:
Asda palm oil ban to save rainforests | Business | The Observer
... with other food retailers getting the rap as late as 2009:
The palm oil scandal: Boots and Waitrose named and shamed - Green Living - Environment - The Independent
BBC News - Panorama - Palm oil products and the weekly shop
But now, 'big food' is keen to come on board:
Futures Forum: Eco-imperialism, zero-deforestation and palm oil
Sustainable Palm Oil: Another Step Along the Road | Jonathon Porritt
... as are the big food retailers:
Palm Oil at Waitrose
Boots UK Limited | Member | RSPO - Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
Supermarkets Ban Palm Oil - Prevention.com
Indeed, the market does seem to be responding to the campaigning:
Futures Forum: Saving the rainforests....... indigenous communities' and palm oil corporations' commitment to "zero-deforestation"
The Guardian's Sustainable Business series looked at the issue a couple of weeks ago - and asks us what we do as consumers:
EU labelling changes force industry action on palm oil
A new law is predicted to benefit the sustainable palm oil industry, but the question is whether consumers will care
Will new EU food labelling rules change your purchasing decisions on palm oil? - poll
‘From a sustainability perspective, moving out of palm oil makes no sense at all. Palm oil is a very productive crop.’ Photograph: Gethin Chamberlain
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Friday 12 December 2014 12.30 GMT
From Saturday, 500 million consumers in Europe will become aware that palm oil is in their food. The EU law on food information to consumers (otherwise known as FIC) means that food stuffs can no longer get away with hiding ingredients under generic titles. Now ingredients will have to be exactly what it says on the tin, and sustainable palm oil could be a major beneficiary.
Until now, palm oil has often been hidden as generic vegetable oil, as well as hundreds of other misleading synonyms. In practice, given that the law was agreed in 2001, most major brands, manufacturers and retailers have already stopped this practice in advance of the legislation coming into force. Go down to your local supermarket and own-brand foods have long included palm oil (where it ends up in products as diverse as breakfast cereals to pizza bases).
Transparent labelling is already having a positive impact on the uptake of sustainable palm oil, certified by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). “In the first two-quarters of this year compared with last year we’ve seen a 65% increase in sales of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO),” says Danielle Morley, RSPO’s European director of outreach and engagement. “We think that’s in anticipation of preparing for the FIC regulations.”
However, whether FIC will boost the long-term uptake of CSPO is uncertain. The regulation only requires that palm oil is stated where used, not whether it is sustainable or not.
The Association of Chocolate, Biscuit and Confectionery Industries of Europe initially lobbied against FIC. “At first people were nervous,” says its secretary general, Sabine Nafziger, “but now they are really happy to do it because it creates a level playing field. It is good that this debate is now out there.” Nafziger thinks a public conversation must now include the positive attributes of palm oil and the need to drive the uptake of CSPO (currently 17% of global palm oil production is RSPO-certified, and only 52% of that finds an end buyer.
According to Siska Pottie, secretary general of Imace, the European margarine association, the game changer would be “if the consumer were asking for sustainable palm oil. It is all a question of demand, because there is a lot of sustainable palm oil already available”.
Where some retailers have already included palm oil on labels for a number of years, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) reports no discernible change “in customer behaviour or sales or even any questions through customer lines”, says Andrea Martinez-Inchausti, BRC’s assistant director for food policy. “There seems to be a very strong move by consumers to claim their right to know what is in their food, and that labels are as clear as possible. [But] whether that translates into a change in consumer behaviour I think is still to be seen. For example, people asserted their right to have country of origin information and that [also] hasn’t seen any change in customer purchasing behaviour.”
Many manufacturers that do use 100% CSPO also choose not to put the RSPO certification trademark on product packaging, preferring instead to reference it only in CSR reports or corporate websites. Martinez-Inchausti again puts this down to lack of consumer demand. Nafziger adds: “It is not common [for its members to use the logo] because there are too many logos these days. The manufacturers have their own branding, other logos, ingredients, health information. The front of pack becomes completely crowded. What manufacturers are basically looking for is that [the consumer] trusts the brand.”
However, RSPO believes that using the trademark on products will be central to raising awareness and driving demand. “Some companies are waiting for the RSPO brand to become better known by consumers, but of course that is a bit of a chicken and egg situation,” says Morley. “We’re never going to have the same consumer reach that brands have so we really need to see them using the trademark.”
Not all of Europe’s consumers are as passive as the Brits. In countries such as France, Belgium and Sweden, public concern over the use of palm oil is high, both from a sustainability and health point of view (palm oil is high is saturated fats). A burgeoning “No Palm Oil” movement is seeing some brands ditch palm oil altogether and state that on their packets, to sate the public mood.
Nafziger says that smaller confectioners in these markets are likely to move to being palm oil free because it is deemed simpler than selling RSPO, as it is self-explanatory. But for the majority in her sector, where palm oil is now an essential ingredient, this is not an option.
Boycotting palm oil, says RSPO and the WWF, is also not a solution. “From a sustainability perspective, moving out of palm oil makes no sense at all,” says Adam Harrison, WWF’s palm oil lead. “Palm oil is a very productive crop, and switching to another oil like oil-seed rape or soy, just means that more land is used globally to produce vegetable oil. Palm oil is something like nine times more productive per hectare than the next [most productive] oil. So we have a very clear message as WWF to companies: if it’s sustainability you’re worried about, buy RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil.”
Despite being almost 15 years in the making, the incoming FIC regulation perhaps remains ahead of its time, for palm oil at least. No one expects an instant change in consumer behaviour. However, the information on the label is now there, and will remain so for when public consciousness increases. “As [consumers] become sensitised to the issues,” says Morley, “then they will, they should, convert the manufacturers to providing them with sustainable palm oil products.”
Read more stories like this:
From rainforest to your cupboard: the real story of palm oil - interactive
10 things you need to know about sustainable palm oil
Palm oil: the secret in your shopping basket - have your say
The palm oil debate is funded by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled advertisement feature. Find out more here.
EU labelling changes force industry action on palm oil | Guardian Sustainable Business | The Guardian
The question remains as to whether the industry should - and indeed could - go completely
Palm Oil Free | Facebook
Say No To Palm Oil | Whats The Issue
Helping you buy responsibly - Palm oil free alternatives
Going palm oil free | Is it possible to completely avoid palm oil?
For the time being, it seems that there are few 'alternatives' - other than demanding 'sustainable' sources for the oil in the products we consume:
Orangutan's Horrific Death Underscores Need for Brands to Use Certified Palm Oil | Robert Hii
Why does palm oil still dominate the supermarket shelves? | Guardian Sustainable Business | The Guardian
So, why not have a look at this interactive piece from the Guardian:
From rainforest to your cupboard: the real story of palm oil - interactive | Guardian Sustainable Business | The Guardian