Guilt-free movie snacks: why demand sustainable palm oil?

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Palm Oil Supermarket ProductsPalm Oil Supermarket Products                                                                                  ©WWF-Canon /Richard Stonehouse

It was a cold and rainy Saturday night in Sydney recently and I decided that we would have a family movie night at home. Movie? Check. Snacks? No.

As a child we always had chocolate coated honeycomb as a movie treat, so for the first time in years I went searching for some. I couldn’t see the familiar violet packet from my childhood, but there was another similar product from an Australian company. Unfamiliar with the brand, I read the packet and I think I might have emitted a small shriek of excitement (only a small one!).

This packet had, on the front, a logo with a palm frond and the statement that the product was helping to save orang-utan habitat. I turned the packet over and there was a whole paragraph about sustainable palm oil, the company’s concerns about deforestation and why they use 100% fully traceable, segregated, Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) in their products.

This kind of label is a rare thing in Australia. We ate the honeycomb. I showed the packet to my friends and even to my mother, who took the (now empty) packet home with her to read the label more thoroughly and to verify that her daughter does have a real job (working for WWF-Australia as the Sustainable Palm Oil Manager).

So what was the excitement about? What we often hear about palm oil tends to be all doom and gloom and this makes companies loathe to draw attention to palm oil in products (even if it’s sustainably produced). So it remains hidden, which reduces the ability for consumers to make informed choices.

The reality of the situation is more complex than simply ‘palm oil is bad’, so it’s great to see a company acknowledging this reality publicly. Palm oil is in so many products: from chocolate and biscuits to cosmetics and cleaning products. In most parts of the world approximately 50% of the items on shelves in the supermarket contain palm oil. You wouldn’t know this though, because in many places palm oil isn’t labelled as an ingredient on product labels. It is listed as a vegetable fat or oil, and can be known by over 100 different names and used in different forms, depending on the product.

Why is it in everything? It is a useful ingredient for manufacturers – it can do things like extend the shelf life of products or help with the product shape or texture. The use of palm oil in products is on the rise. Global production of palm oil has increased tenfold since 1980, driven largely by population growth, rising incomes and urbanisation. Conservative estimates see a further 50% growth by 2050.

Oil palm plantation, Malaysia© Lamam/WWF-Canon

Palm oil comes from the oil palm, a highly productive crop tree which grows on plantations in tropical areas. Around 85% of global palm oil production comes from Indonesia and Malaysia, with the remainder coming mostly from Africa and South America. The growth of the palm oil industry has contributed to unprecedented economic growth in Southeast Asia.

So where do the orangutans come in to the picture? The growth of the palm oil industry has also contributed significantly to deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, destroying the habitats of endangered species such as orangutans, elephants, rhinos and tigers, displacing some local forest-dwelling communities and contributing to harmful climate change.

That doesn’t sound so good. Does that mean if we didn’t buy products containing palm oil the orangutans would be safe? Unfortunately, the impact could be worse, on both people and the environment. If we stop buying palm oil and lobby manufacturers to use other vegetable oils instead, more land is likely to be taken up growing these oils. Oil palm can produce up to ten times the yield of alternative vegetable oils, making it a highly efficient crop. If we need more land, that might actually lead to increased deforestation and loss of species. If companies stop demanding sustainable palm oil, then growers won’t be bothered about the sustainability of their crop.

So what can you do? Demand that manufacturers switch to using 100% certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) in their products. CSPO is certified against the principles and criteria established by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), developed to provide safeguards against deforestation, habitat loss and social conflict. The RSPO brings together palm oil growers, processors, manufacturers, retailers, NGOs and investors to transform the way that palm oil is produced, traded and consumed globally.

The RSPO standards are not perfect, but they are improving the sustainability of the palm oil industry. In 2014 around 16% of the world’s palm oil production is certified sustainable. If palm oil isn’t labelled, how do you know if a product contains CSPO? You have to go back to the manufacturer and ask them what they are doing about palm oil.

To help consumers sift fact from fiction, WWF produces a biennial Palm Oil Scorecard, which benchmarks companies’ commitments and progress towards procuring sustainable palm oil. Check out the 2013 scorecard.

When it comes to palm oil, the power is in the consumers’ hands. Demand CSPO from manufacturers and retailers, and ask that companies commit to zero deforestation. If growers follow the standards of the RSPO and if buyers of palm oil support these growers by purchasing CSPO, then we can begin to halt the devastating loss of forests and tropical species associated with this popular vegetable oil. And we can have our snacks and eat them too!

By Darian McBain, Sustainable Palm Oil Manager, WWF-Australia


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