By KIM KNIGHT - Sunday Star Times New Zealand
DAIRY farmers have been implicated in a new palm oil scandal after revelations that last year the national herd ate one-quarter of the world's palm kernel stock food supply.
More than one million tonnes of palm kernel expeller (PKE) was imported last year, mostly from Indonesia and Malaysia, where environmental groups are concerned at the palm industry's role in the loss of tropical rainforest and destruction of tiger and orang-utan habitat.
An international body, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, has been set up to ensure sustainable supply of palm product, but secretary-general Dr Vengeta Rao said last week that "very little" of what entered New Zealand would have been certified.
His comment follows Cadbury's decision to back down on plans to introduce palm oil to its Dairy Milk chocolate, after a public outcry.
PKE is created when palm fruit is crushed and processed to produce palm kernel oil. Based on figures provided by the roundtable, a maximum 330,000 tonnes of PKE on the global market since last August could be considered certified. This country imported 1,104,387 tonnes, putting our consumption rates second only to the combined 27 countries of the European Union.
Two weeks ago, the Sunday Star-Times travelled to Indonesia with Greenpeace communications manager Suzette Jackson and Waitakaruru farmer Max Purnell to see, first hand, the impact of this trade that the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry says has increased one thousand-fold since 2000.
We spoke to community leaders who said they had been jailed in their fight to keep land from palm companies, and conservationists who feared for the future of animals such as the Sumatran orang-utan.
"Not only is this trade damaging to the environment on the ground here, it's also really damaging to how we are trying to portray ourselves internationally, as a country that does care, that does give a damn, and wants to live up to what we trade on our clean, green identity," said Jackson.
Farmers argue the spike in imports was due to last year's devastating drought and the need to provide supplementary feed. But, says Jackson, "the figures have climbed really steadily over the past 10 years. Drought has a little bit to do with it, but the major reason this increase has come about is through the intensification and corporatisation of New Zealand's dairy sector."
Purnell said he had witnessed the "systematic, deliberate, studied rape and desecration of land and the local people's ability to have a future with it". He believed that if dairy farmers knew the potential impact of the PKE trade, they would find alternatives.
Hew Dalrymple, Federated Farmers' grain and seed section vice-chairman, said there were serious biosecurity concerns about PKE. "There are threats from imported insects, risk from soil contamination and foot and mouth disease and food safety issues... with that amount of product coming into the country, shipload after shipload, it is a real biosecurity issue for us."
Lachlan McKenzie, Federated Farmers' dairy chairman, said farmers needed supplementary feed during last year's drought, and PKE was just a by-product. "The palm is grown for oil, not its by-product. This is the husk that is left after the oil is taken out... palm oil is the prime driver of this."
He said it was up to importers, not farmers, to ensure the product was being sustainably produced.
Biosecurity and Agriculture Minister David Carter said the government recognised the importance of New Zealand's reputation and image in world markets, and the dairy industry was aware of the need to improve sustainability.
"It has made significant progress on sustainability in recent years, for example the Dairying and Clean Streams Accord and recent work on greenhouse gas footprinting."
The emergence of the palm kernel issue, Carter said, "reinforces the importance of the dairy industry continuing to work on its sustainability".