I've been feeling in a right old mood today. There are several things that have been on my mind, some on a personal level, some not so much.
One of the things that affects me on several levels is the issue of palm oil. I had only been vaguely aware of its existence up until a few days ago when something I read prompted me to do some research about it. And what I discovered shocked me.
Firstly, you may be wondering much as I myself was a few short days ago, what is palm oil? Well, who better to ask than the Malaysian Palm Oil Council who have an entire website all about it. According to the website at TheOilPalm.org "The oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is an important agricultural crop, which yields three important sources of food and animal feed, namely palm oil, palm kernel oil and palm kernel cake. An average of 3.7 tonnes of palm oil, 0.4 tonnes of palm kernel oil and 0.6 tonnes of palm kernel cake is obtainable from one hectare of land. While the first two products can be used for human consumption, such as cooking oil, margarines, shortenings, bakery fats, vanaspati, ice creams and Vitamin E, and other products, palm kernel cake is used as an animal feed. Palm oil is also a source for biofuels and biodiesel used for power plants and other renewable energy purposes throughout the world.
Palm oil is derived from the flesh of the fruit of the oil palm species. In its virgin form, the oil is bright orange-red due to the high content of carotene. Palm oil is nature’s gift to Malaysia, and Malaysia’s to the world."
Palm oil and its various uses are a huge source of controversy. This is where I come in, because I read a report the other day about the loss of a significant amount of the Orangutan's natural habitat because of the palm oil industry. There are issues surrounding the natural habitat of the Sumatran tiger being lost because of palm oil production also.
Not only that but because many rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia lie atop peat bogs that store great quantities of carbon that are released when the forests are cut down and the bogs drained to make way for plantations, there has been a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
Many of the major companies in the vegetable oil economy participate in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which is trying to address this problem, though their efforts so far have done almost nothing to change or slow the escalating situation and have been likened to green-washing (the deceptive use of green PR or green marketing in order to promote a misleading perception that a company's policies or products (such as goods or services) are environmentally friendly). Even so, in 2008 Unilever, a member of the RSPO group, committed to use only palm oil which is certified as sustainable, by ensuring that the large companies and smallholders that supply it convert to sustainable production by 2015.
Meanwhile, much of the recent investment in new palm plantations for biofuel has been part-funded through carbon credit projects through the Clean Development Mechanism (for a detailed explanation of what this actually is, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clean_Development_Mechanism); however the reputational risk associated with unsustainable palm plantations in Indonesia has now made many funds wary of investing there.
You would think that the problems ended there, but no. There is indeed more.
Palm oil producers have been accused of various human-rights violations, from low pay and poor working conditions to theft of land and even murder. However, some social initiatives use palm oil profits to finance poverty alleviation strategies. Examples include the financing of Magbenteh hospital in Makeni, Sierra Leone through profits made from palm oil grown by small local farmers, the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance's Food Security Program, which draws on a women-run cooperative to grow palm oil, the profits of which are reinvested in food security, or the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's hybrid oil palm project in Western Kenya, which improves incomes and diets of local populations.
The RSPO was established in 2001 as a market-led initiative to reform the way palm oil is produced, processed and used, with clear standards on the production of sustainable palm oil. Members include companies all along the supply chain, from big name companies such as Unilever, Cadbury's, Nestle and Tesco, to suppliers such as Cargill, ADM and Indonesian-based Duta Palma.
Trouble is, the existing standards developed by the RSPO will not prevent forest and peatland destruction, and a number of RSPO members are taking no steps to avoid the worst practices of the palm oil industry. Some like palm oil processor Duta Palma, an RSPO member, are directly involved in deforestation. Worse still, at present the RSPO itself is creating the illusion of sustainable palm oil, justifying the expansion of the industry.
As in many other forest areas around the world, local communities often get a raw deal. Many are totally dependent on the forest for everything they need to survive and although in theory indigenous people have the right to control development on their customary lands, their rights are frequently violated by the government and companies. They are often cheated out of their land, and farmers who sell their forest areas can become trapped in a cycle of debt, effectively becoming slaves on their own land. It's also worth remembering that most players in the palm oil industry are major international companies, so the profits and associated benefits don't filter down to the majority of Indonesians.
In what products will one likely find palm oil used? Probably in bread, margarine, potato crisps, chocolate, laundry detergent, cakes, breakfast cereal, ramen noodles, frozen pizza, chewing gum and frozen fish products. The reason it's used is because it is the cheapest cooking oil in the world, which is fine. I don't have a problem with that. But I DO have a major problem with companies using palm oil purchased from companies involved with deforestation. Many companies have recently gotten on board with the whole 'sustainable palm oil' thing, including Unilever and Nestle.
So what to do? Well, you could try not buying products from companies that do not use sustainable palm oil. But there is no way of knowing that just by looking at the packaging. You'd have to hop online and shoot the company an email, and probably never get an answer. Or a misleading one.
Or you could just quit buying products that use palm oil, but the trouble is, palm oil is not always listed as such, merely as 'vegetable oil'.
In the meantime all an armchair activist such as myself can do is try to spread the word and assist in my own small way the efforts of Greenpeace, PETA and others who are trying to ensure that the rainforests of Indonesia and other affected areas of the world are not decimated by the demand for a cooking oil that may or may not be the next wonderfuel.