"The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." attributed to Plato

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." attributed to Edmund Burke

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Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Palm Oil and the Orang Utan

Writing over the last two days about Land Grabbing, I told the story of the 7 million hectares of land in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) acquired by the Chinese for Palm Oil production whilst millions of people in the DRC rely on international food aid. This reminded me of an article I wrote just a few years ago on Palm Oil and the Orang Utan. Some detail may be ever so slightly out of date but not much has changed and the message is still as important. Here it is:

"Within 15 years it is predicted that 98% of the primary tropical rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia will be gone, and with them some of the world’s most important species, including the Orang Utan, the Asian Elephant and the Sumatran Tiger. Why? Because of our insatiable appetite for Palm Oil. Forests are being cleared for palm plantations, and the animals lose their habitat. And we will have to explain to our children that this was not caused by our ignorance but by corporate greed and lack of consumer and political will.

I’m sure it will be pretty much the same in the US, but one out of ten UK supermarket products are now said to contain palm oil. These products range from chocolates to lipsticks to detergents and animal feed as well as many processed food products such as biscuits, cakes and ready meals. That would be bad enough, but the oil is now in huge demand also as a bio-fuel, to be used in the fight to combat greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. That places even greater strain on the forests and for various reasons is almost certainly substituting one carbon emission problem for another. And it is the world’s poorest people who suffer most intensely from the effects of that climate change.

83% of our Palm Oil is from Indonesia and Malaysia. When I wrote this in 2008 most UK supermarkets, importers and manufacturers had apparently refused to take any real action to get their palm oil from sustainable sources. What, I wonder, is the current situation? A Friends of the Earth survey showed that 84% of UK companies didn't even know where their palm oil comes from. What is more, they clearly did not care! (See a recent BBC Panorama report on this.)

Why the tremendous increase in the demand for Palm Oil in our food? Because it has become the popular substitute for the partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, or trans fats, that have until recently been widely used in many of the ready meals and processed foods such as biscuits and cakes that we buy in huge quantities. Trans fats behave when consumed like the ‘baddie’ saturated fats found in dairy products and fatty red meats, sausages etc and although not proven, it is likely that they are unhealthy if we eat too much. As a result they are being progressively eliminated from the foods bought from supermarkets and fast food chains. But the health risks of trans fats were acknowledged in a book on nutrition that I have on my bookshelf that was written in the 1970’s! Why do some items of crucial interest for our health and wellbeing take so long to come into the global consciousness? You may well ask!

Not that we can be sure that Palm Oil is any better for us. It is one of the three Tropical Fats - Coconut Oil, Palm Kernel Oil and Palm Oil – that are also highly saturated. So we may be replacing one health problem for another. Claims have been made, chiefly it would seem from the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (well they would, wouldn’t they!), that there are in fact nutritional benefits from the use of Palm Oil in food. But it seems the scientific jury are still out on that one. And even if you choose to avoid Palm Oil in your diet, you may not find it so easy because it may be simply described as ‘vegetable oil’ on the label, making it seem healthier than it probably is!

So what is the poor consumer to do? Trans fats or palm oil? And can you tell the difference? And is your supermarket doing all it can to follow Asda’s lead and trace its Palm Oil consumption to sustainable sources?
And what does sustainable mean? It is not just about saving the Orang Utan. The animal is a fragile part of a whole ecosystem that includes those very people who are clearing the forests and working the plantations. And their main concern is probably the daily struggle to earn money to feed their families. Orang Utans are a pest to young palm oil plants and not surprisingly are hunted by the locals. Therefore any campaigns for sustainability of Palm Oil plantations must consider the needs of those local workers, and may include, for example, offers of assistance to local governments to work towards sustainable solutions, and support for local community education programmes that will enable and empower any changes that are needed. This is where organisations such as the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) (Promoting the Growth and Use of Sustainable Palm Oil) become important. Formed by Friends of the Earth in 2004, to work towards totally sustainable Palm Oil plantations, progress is painfully slow. All seven of the major UK supermarkets have now signed up to the RSPO, but not until 2007 did Asda become the first UK supermarket to tell its palm oil suppliers that they must guarantee their palm oil is sourced from sustainable plantations. Body Shop has made similar moves with regard to the source of palm oil used in its soaps. What about the other supermarkets?

We have to behave as responsible consumers, for the sake of our health but also for the health of the planet. We as consumers have huge power – we call it purchasing power! If we do not buy, the shops will no longer stock. It is that simple! It is up to us! 

But it is also a Christian issue. Our belief in a God of justice means that we must care for the interests of those of our brothers and sisters who through no fault of their own live in the poorer areas of our one world that God created for us all. And that means curbing our own excesses, doing all we can to repair the damage we have done and helping those who are most affected.

What can we do? Ask your supermarket what their policy is on Palm Oil. Let them know you care. Follow the debates on the internet and support the organisations that are campaigning for the future of our planet and the Orang Utan. Subscribe to one of the publications such as ‘Ethical Consumer’ that keep track of these things for us and help us make informed decisions. And try more home baking and cooking, preferably and wherever possible using fresh seasonal organic produce from the various good local farm shops and of course our own local stores. How much healthier is that for ourselves and the planet!?"

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