Monday, 17 August 2009

The case against palm oil


Last updated 17/08/2009

Public concerns over palm oil were highlighted when Cadbury revealed it had started using palm oil in its chocolate, prompting a consumer backlash.

The company finally bowed to consumer pressure today when it announced it would go back to using cocoa butter instead.

But Cadbury's use of palm oil is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the product's use in New Zealand.

Palm oil is reported to be used in as many as one in ten products on our supermarket shelves.

Conservation advocates say its production is responsible for intensive deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, leading to the slaughter of around 50 endangered orangutans a week and making Indonesia the world's third highest man-made carbon emitter, according to Greenpeace.

As bad as the move to palm oil and subsequent negative publicity was for Cadbury, some conservation advocates say it has highlighted their cause.

Auckland Zoo has been campaigning against the use of unsustainable palm oil since 2002, ridding their premises of almost all products containing palm oil and attempting to educate the public about which products contained the ingredient.

Conservation officer Peter Fraser said the Cadbury affair put the spotlight on what is considered one of the world's worst cases of environmental degradation.

"It's been fantastic in that it's bought this to the public's attention. A few years ago no one even knew they were eating palm oil let alone in at least every 10 products," he said.

Palm oil has the highest yield of any oil or oil seed crop, according to WWF, producing 3.6 tonnes a hectare, is cheaper than other oils and is healthier than hydrogenated fats.

But, the problem conservation groups have with palm oil is that it's bad for the environment.

A 2007 United Nations Environment Programme reported that between 1967 and 2000, the total palm oil area in Indonesia grew from less than 2000km2 to more than 30,000 in 2000 and demand for palm oil is expected to double this area by 2020.

To produce it, vast swathes of land must be deforested and replanted, leaving behind a barren landscape unsuitable for 90 percent of the areas plethora of wildlife.

According to a 2007 Greenpeace report, over 74 million hectares of Indonesia's carbon-intensive forests have been destroyed in the last 50 years – ostensibly for palm oil plantations.

As a result of the destruction, around 50 orangutans are dying every week according to Greenpeace.

Orangutans are considered an umbrella species – the poster-species for the fight against the deforestation.

Mr Fraser said that if the habitat of the orangutan could be saved, all the other species which call the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo home too would also be saved.

Other animals which live in the forest include the endangered Sumatran Tiger, the Sumatran Rhinoceros - the smallest and hairiest of the five rhino species, and the Asian elephant.

"The biggest threat is deforestation and the biggest reason for deforestation is palm plantations," he said.

"Our concern is the pace at which the forest is being replaced. We're going to have orangutans and all the other species that exist in those forests functionally extinct within 10 years."

While Cadbury's move was roundly condemned, with a Facebook group dedicated to boycotting its products gathering over 3000 members, it is not the only company using palm oil.

Statistics New Zealand figures show that last year New Zealand imported 1,104,187 tonnes of palm kernel, a high quality by-product of palm oil extraction, for stock feed.

New Zealand's palm oil comes from Malaysia and Indonesia and is used by dairy farmers in Manawatu, Taranaki, Wairarapa and Wanganui.

Auckland Zoo staff have been putting together a list of all products which do not contain palm oil.

But general estimates show it is present in one in ten products on our supermarket shelves - including cosmetics, shaving creams and sweets. It is often labeled only as "vegetable oil" leading to it being dubbed the "invisible ingredient".

However, it could be even more widespread. A two-month investigation by UK newspaper The Independent said it was confirmed or suspected to be present in 43 of the UK's top-100 grocery brands.

There is a sustainable source for the oil – but that is so far proving to be unpopular and accounts for only one and a half percent of global supply.

WWF vice president of Agriculture David McLaughlin said he was disappointed with the response to the sustainable: "This sluggish demand from palm oil buyers, such as supermarkets, food and cosmetic manufacturers, could undermine the success of sustainability efforts and threatens the remaining natural tropical forests of Southeast Asia, as well as other forests where oil palm is set to expand, such as the Amazon," he said.

According to Mr Fraser from Auckland Zoo the best way to preserve the Indonesian forests was to encourage more sustainable harvesting and clear labeling – and to do that consumers needed to vote with their wallets.

"The consumer is actually a very savvy person and gets information quite quickly and understands complex issues reasonably well," he said.

New Scientist magazine reports that an unprecedented meeting between palm oil producers, conservationists and local government in October is to try and figure out a way to save the orangutan.


* It is the cheapest cooking oil in the world.
* It is incredibly productive, yielding 3.6 tonnes per hectare
* Borneo is home to 13 primate species, 350 bird species, 150 reptiles and amphibians, and 15,000 plant species, according to Auckland Zoo figures.
* Sumatra is home to Sumatran rhinos, clouded leopards, Sumatran tigers, Asian tapirs, Sumatran elephants, and thousands of other species.
* The wild population of Bornean orangutans is optimistically estimated at 45,000 – 50,000.
* There are about 7,300 Sumatran orangutans in the wild; they are on the list of the top 25 most endangered primates in the world.