Monday, 22 February 2010

Palm oil and rainforests

When doing your weekly shop look out for products that contain an ingredient that is leading to the destruction of rainforests, putting the orang-utan at risk of extinction and causing widespread environmental devastation.

The ingredient in question is palm oil. It’s surprisingly common in many of the everyday products bought in supermarkets, including biscuits, sweets, confectionaries, margarines, breads, crisps and bars of soap.

Palm oil is a cheap source of vegetable oil. The problem is that it is being grown primarily on land that was once home to the vast rainforests of Borneo, the natural habitat of the orang-utan. According to a recent BBC report, it’s estimated that only 3% of the world’s palm oil comes from certified sustainable sources. Further, the International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that the orang-utan population has declined by 50% in recent decades while the Indonesian government has acknowledged that 50,000 orang-utans have died as a result of de-forestation.

It gets worse. Greenpeace has identified the draining of ancient peat lands to make way for palm oil as a global threat, leading to huge amounts of trapped methane being released into the atmosphere. Consequently, Indonesia is now the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind only America and China.

Every time a shopper buys a product from a supermarket that contains palm oil he or she is effectively fuelling the destruction of the Borneo rainforests and hastening the demise of the orang-utan.

So what can be done?

It’s important not to underestimate consumer power. If the supermarkets can’t sell products containing palm oil then demand will dry up. However, supermarkets are in business to make a profit; they will largely ignore their impact on the environment if they can get away with it. That’s not just scepticism on our part. If supermarkets don’t label which of their products contain palm oil then it’s impossible for shoppers to actively exclude them from their shopping trolleys.

Surprise, surprise then that current labelling laws allow supermarkets to list palm oil as 'vegetable' oil, without singling out the palm oil content, thereby preventing shoppers from identifying it in products.

At this point we would like to congratulate Sainsbury’s supermarkets, who have taken a decision not only to single out palm oil on the ingredients list of their own-brand products, but to state directly that it is from a sustainable source.

Other supermarkets have made feeble excuses such as arguing that their recipes can change and the amounts and types of oils they use can vary, making more detailed labels impractical. If that were really true, then how has Sainsbury’s overcome the problem?

If you shop at Tesco, Asda, Safeway or Morrisons then why not e-mail them asking that they label products containing palm oil like Sainsbury’s now does? If they are unwilling to do this then tell them you will shop at Sainsbury’s instead.

Supermarkets may not be concerned about the disappearance of rainforests but they will be concerned about losing customers to a competitor.

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