Monday May 04, 2009 The New Zealand Herald
A cooking oil that is driving the destruction of the rainforests, displacing native people and threatening the survival of the orangutan is present in grocery products commonly found in New Zealand.
Palm oil - blamed for a tree-felling rampage in Southeast Asia - is present or suspected in chocolates, soap products and margarines.
An investigation by the Independent newspaper showed it was present or suspected in 43 of 100 best-selling brands in the UK, far more than the one in 10 products estimated by Friends of the Earth four years ago - but it is also found in many products sold in New Zealand.
Palm oil is present in margarine brand Flora, KitKat and Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bars, as well as Dove soap, Comfort fabric conditioner and Persil washing powder.
The United Nations Environment Programme believes palm oil is the major driver of deforestation in Borneo and Sumatra.
Hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest are cleared to make way for plantations from which 90 per cent of wildlife disappear, including the orangutan, which is fighting a losing battle against extinction. Orangutan numbers have dwindled by 90 per cent since 1900, with the rate of loss accelerating in recent decades.
Emissions from the chainsawed peat-rich forests of Indonesia (which owns Sumatra and half of Borneo) are also thought to generate 4 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Only 4 per cent of palm oil production is certified sustainable by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
All companies contacted by the Independent said they were talking to suppliers about moving to a sustainable supply. Most of them, including Cadbury, Kellogg's, Nestle, Mars and Heinz, have set no date for the process.
Nestle said: "Nestle shares concerns about the serious environmental threat to rainforests in Southeast Asia and supports an end to deforestation. Palm oil is not a major raw material and ... the company's use of palm oil has been declining somewhat."
WWF, formerly the World Wildlife Fund, called on manufacturers to start matching rhetoric with reality by buying sustainable oil, which costs between 10 and 35 per cent more than ordinary supplies which are mixed at refineries.
Originating in West Africa, palm oil has become a £14 billion-a-year ($36.5 billion) industry, with 38 million tonnes produced annually.
Manufacturers use the oil to bind and bulk out chocolate, biscuits, bread and margarine and to give a creamy consistency to soaps.
About 85 per cent of the global supply comes from Borneo and Sumatra, where corruption is rife and where incursions into the forests are enforced by gun-toting security guards.
If present rates of logging continue, the UN Environment Programme estimates that 98 per cent of forests in Indonesia may be destroyed by 2020.