Palm oil is wrecking the environment and causing carbon emissions

2/6/2011 Guardian  by Caroline Lucas In my mail bag at the end of last week was a letter from the minister for
agriculture and food, Jim Paice,responding to queries I made recently about the
UK’s policy on palm oil. I had written to urge the government to back an
amendment – originally tabled by Greens in the European parliament – to the EU
directive on the provision of food information to consumers, which would enforce
mandatory labelling of products containing palm oil. Unfortunately, it appears
that even this moderate step isn’t something our government is willing to
Environmentalists and social activists have long expressed grave concerns about
the negative impact of palm oil on communities and habitats around the world.
High-profile campaigns from WWF and Greenpeace in recent years have exposed the
extent to which palm oil production often comes at the expense of tropical
forests and carbon-rich peat lands. Unsustainable practices have disastrous
consequences on critically endangered species, harm local people and lead to
massive deforestation – thereby setting back the global effort to reduce carbon
A lack of transparency in the food industry means it isn’t often visible – but
palm oil is everywhere. During the industrial revolution, it was a highly
sought-after commodity for British traders, used as an industrial lubricant for
machinery. Now, palm oil is the world’s cheapest and most common vegetable oil,
found in close to half of all top-selling grocery brands across Europe. Research
from 2008 showed that 43 out of the 100 best-selling branded products in UK
supermarkets contained the oil.
Primarily produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, and increasingly in Africa, around
70% of palm oil is thought to end up in food and other common products – with
multinational companies accounting for the lion’s share.
Given the scale of the problem, you would imagine that the government would want
to do all it can to address this crucial issue. An EU-wide mandatory labelling
policy is one common sense solution – reducing palm oil’s invisibility and
allowing consumers to make informed decisions about the products they buy,
increasing pressure on companies to commit only to certified sustainable palm
oil. Such a policy would also be in line with the government’s Food 2030
strategy, which highlights the need to support the development of sustainable
supply chains.
Yet in his response, Paice argues that a requirement for separate labelling of
palm oil in foods would be “burdensome for businesses”, although helpfully he
states that there is “nothing to prevent manufacturers providing information on
a voluntary basis”.
As my Green colleagues in the European parliament, Keith Taylor and Jean
Lambert, have argued, voluntary labelling schemes will fail to provide the
much-needed impetus on companies to act. Only a compulsory scheme would
adequately encourage more sustainable production, by driving demand for
certified sustainable palm oil from European food retailers and manufacturers.
Consumer pressure has already pushed many leading European supermarkets and food
manufacturers into joining the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). But
while it’s a start, little so far has been seen in the way of impact. Many RSPO
members are reportedly failing to alter the most damaging industry practices,
like large-scale forest clearance and the exploitation of local communities in
conflicts over land rights.
Without serious commitment and binding obligations, bodies such as the RSPO risk
being little more than fig leaves for industry – promoting an image of
sustainability without companies having to actually change their ways.
And there is no underestimating the lobbying efforts of this hugely profitable
industry. As the Guardian reported recently, Malaysia and Indonesia have
launched a joint PR offensive to defend the industry’s environmental record in
Europe. The new European palm oil council (EPOC) will be in place by the end of
this year, explicitly designed to counter the “anti-palm oil campaign”.
Ministers from both countries are also visiting US officials in Washington DC to
discuss obstacles to the palm oil trade.
In the face of such pressure from an expanding industry, governments need to
encourage far more vigilance and transparency along the full length of the palm
oil supply chain to ensure that only sustainable producers can supply the
companies which make our groceries. The industry knows that, given the choice,
consumers will demand change.
Transparency is also part of what’s needed to tackle the role played by biofuel
production in increasing demand for palm oil. Just last week, we learned that
environmental groups are suing the European commission over a failure to meet
its legal obligations to make available information about Europe’s biofuels
policy – and how decisions are made about sustainability.
The irony is that, while governments are committing wholeheartedly to biofuels
as a solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they are contributing to a
destructive palm oil trade which may do more harm than good to the world’s
people and habitats.
And surely anything that involves land being taken away from communities and
used to grow crops for export at the expense of local food production is
inherently unsustainable? Since the EU’s biofuel legislation allows for
sustainability criteria to be developed over next few years and for a review to
take place, measures to tackle palm oil ought at the very least to be consistent
with that process.
Meanwhile, the labelling of palm oil is still under discussion in the European
institutions. It’s certainly not the only form of action we need, but the Greens
in the European parliament will do all they can to push it through as an
important first step. It’s a pity that the UK government won’t support them.

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