Holding the Palm Oil Industry & Their Buyers Accountable

By Rosaly Byrd.

The demand for palm oil, which comes from the oil palm tree grown in the tropics, has increased greatly over the last decade and is not planning on slowing down in the near future. Palm oil is highly versatile and it can be found in all types of products we consume, from chocolate, ice cream and chips to paper, soaps and biodiesel. Its high yields and competitive price make palm oil the most consumed oilseed in today’s market (compared to soybean and sunflower oil). It’s also found in countless goods produced by large multinational corporations. For these reasons, Indonesia, a tropical country with 70% of the population living in rural areas and agriculture as the main source of income (not to mention 16.6% of this rural population living in poverty), finds palm oil an attractive option for cultivation. So much so that rainforest cover in Southeast Asia is now being cut down at alarming rates to provide the land for palm oil plantations; In Indonesia about 2% of forest is lost a year and about 2 million hectares were cleared between 2011 and 2012.

The clear-cutting of these forests is not only disastrous in terms of climate change, erosion, soil pollution and loss of habitat for plant and animal species, but it has also resulted in tremendous air pollution as these forests are usually cleared through the burning of natural vegetation. Extreme smoke and haze from this burning has forced Indonesian provinces to declare state of emergencies and even surrounding Southeast Asian countries have been affected by the trans-boundary haze. In June 2013, air pollution hit record levels in Singapore due to Indonesian forest fires.

It is true that Indonesia’s lack of enforcement and governance are largely to blame for the high rates of deforestation. Inherent corruption and shady relationships between government officials and the forestry sector plague the nation; In 2010, Indonesia’s top UNFCCC REDD+negotiator Wandojo Siswanto was accused of receiving a bribe in exchange for “favorable treatment in the forest ministry’s budget”. But as environmental groups have exposed, the multinational corporations that are buying this palm oil are largely to blame as well. Many corporations own the land where the slash-and-burn deforestation takes place while other powerful multinational buyers provide the incentives for large-scale, often illegal, palm oil cultivation.

WWF, Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace and Union of Concerned Scientists have all launched investigations into palm oil production in order to bring attention to the role that multinational corporations play. WWF found that Wilmar (Asia’s largest agribusiness group) purchased palm oil fruit that was grown illegally from inside an Indonesian national park where it is illegal to plant these trees. Greenpeace’s investigation revealed that P&G’s suppliers were involved in deforestation, clearance of tiger and orangutan habitat, peatland destruction, fires and social conflict.  The Union of Concerned Scientists recently released a detailed scorecard, evaluating America’s top brands on their palm oil policies, finding that PepsiCo doesn’t hold their suppliers to any specific standards while Kraft has not addressed the issue of responsible palm oil production at all.

But in the past few months Wilmar, Kellogg, Proctor & Gamble and Unilever have announced new efforts and commitments to deforestation-free and traceable palm oil (undoubtedly because of the pressure put on them by activist groups). Many environmental groups are working hard to eliminate incentives for palm oil production that leads to deforestation and encouraging companies to use certified sustainable palm oil. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is one of WWF’s initiatives established in 2001 to bring together palm oil producers, buyers and activist groups to implement and promote better practices for sustainable palm oil production. Although RSPO now represents 40% of the global palm oil trade, environmental groups claim that no significant action is being done.  In order to address RSPO’s inadequacy, Rainforest Alliance has developed its own palm oil certification with practical and credible standards.

Like other sustainability initiatives in the corporate world, it will take time to develop a mainstreamed and harmonious certification system, but companies that are already committing to traceability and deforestation-free practices are taking the first vital step. It is important for the companies buying palm oil to ask their suppliers about the entire chain of custody of the palm oil they purchase and take responsibility for their supply chains, ensuring that the palm oil comes from a legal source.  And thanks to new tools like the Global Forest Watch, we are able to monitor deforestation in Indonesia and be certain that multinationals are complying to their own management policies.

LOCAL: How You Can Do Your Part

You may be unknowingly contributing to illegal deforestation in Indonesia by the products you consume. But by being a conscientious consumer, paying attention to the products we buy and where they come from, we can avoid buying food or cosmetic products from companies that do not commit to sustainable palm oil practices. Use the power of your dollar (or whichever currency you use) to hold these companies accountable for their actions. Rainforest Action Network (RAN)’s Conflict Palm Oil study exposes the “Snack Food 20“, a group of companies that sell products that contain palm oil sourced from areas associated with destructive production. Here are the companies that RAN publicly lists and that you will want to stay away from or find alternatives to:

Campbell Soup Company; ConAgra Foods, Inc.; Dunkin’ Brands Group, Inc.; General Mills, Inc.; Grupo Bimbo; Hillshire Brands Company; H.J. Heinz Company; Hormel Foods Corporation; Kellogg Company; Kraft Food Group, Inc.; Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Corp.; Mars Inc.; Mondelez International, Inc.; Nestlé S.A.; Nissin Foods Holdings Co., Ltd.; PepsiCo, Inc.; The Hershey Company; The J.M. Smucker Company; Toyo Suisan Kaisha, Ltd.

For more detailed information on these and various other companies, visit the Union of Concerned Scientist’s scorecard. The Ethical Consumer has useful information if you wish to look for brands that use no palm oil at all. Check for certified sustainability labels on the products you buy that contain palm oil (including snack foods, deodorant & body wash). Rainforest Alliance‘s certification (see seal below) provides consumers with a peace of mind, signaling that no deforestation has occurred on the farm since 2005 and that third-party consultants audit and certify these palm oil farms.  You can also spread the word to your family, community, group of friends, and school.  Start your own campaign or join one of the many that are telling companies to commit to zero-deforestation and sustainable palm oil policies. Click here to visit the Union of Concerned Scientist’s campaign or here to access RAN’s “The Last Stand of the Orangutan”.

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