Whether we realise it or not, every one of us is playing a role in serious deforestation and the possible extinction of orangutans. In our fridges, pantries and cupboards, we all have products containing palm oil, which is fine if it’s ‘certified sustainable’ rather than a product causing appalling devastation to flora and fauna. But you won’t see it clearly labelled; instead it’s hidden in the guise of ‘vegetable oil’. This uncertainty and horrific outcomes are the reasons behind the push for clearer labelling of palm oil products. So what’s actually happening? What else can we do?
Rahul is a 10-year-old orangutan, he is paralysed, which means he can’t walk, sit up or feed himself. He was a victim of conflict – after someone killed his mother, he was kept illegally as a pet and contracted meningitis that caused such a significant brain injury he never recovered. Workers at the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Centre spend many long hours carrying him around, which isn’t easy considering he weighs more than 20 kilograms. He is spoon-fed pureed food and helped to chew. Rahul has no chance of ever being released back to the wild because of his disability, and as he matures he will become very difficult to care for. He is just one of countless orangutans that are permanently disabled directly because of humans. Some orangutans are blinded after deliberately being shot in the eyes while others have been attacked with machetes or bamboo stakes.
A lot of these stories start with a bulldozer and a forest that is being transformed into a large-scale oil palm plantation. Through the supply chain and hidden in our products, it is then our consumption of palm oil that is pushing orangutans and other animals to the edge of extinction.
Palm oil is a type of edible vegetable oil that is derived from the palm fruit, which is grown on the African oil palm tree. It is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, with roughly tens of millions of tons of palm oil produced annually. It accounts for more than 30 percent of the world’s vegetable oil production, 80 percent of which is used in the food industry. It is everywhere and found in approximately 50 percent of household products, including baked goods, confectionery, shampoo, cosmetics, cleaning agents, washing detergents and toothpaste.
If you go and look in your fridge, your pantry or your bathroom cupboard right now, chances are you will have products labelled ‘vegetable oil’. But the real question is, how many of these products are actually palm oil that you don’t know about it? What damage are the products you have in your house doing to the orangutans, the ecosystem and people? It is this uncertainty and the impending extinction of these orangutans that is driving the desire to re-label products that contain palm oil.
Campaign director of Unmask Palm Oil, the Australasian campaign for mandatory labelling of palm oil, Ben Dowdle, says the public is “extremely supportive” of the idea of mandatory labelling of palm oil, with 92 percent of New Zealanders and 84 percent of Australians supporting the mandatory labelling of palm oil.
Unmask Palm Oil aims to recreate labelling legislation that is up to the same standard as the rest of the Western world. As a result, consumers will be able to demand the use of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). “Unmask Palm Oil does not support a boycott of palm oil,” Dowdle says. “Palm oil is up to 10 times more productive than any other kind of oil [and] this means that moving production to another oil could result in 10 times more land being needed to match palm oil production. We are strongly in favour of supporting certified and traceable palm oil that ensures the palm oil is not from deforested land.”
In order to change the legislation, the ‘Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation’ – which is 10 ministers, one from each Australian state, territorial and federal government as well as from New Zealand’s government – must decide whether to change the Food Standards Code. This would mean that palm oil would need to be specifically labelled rather than be under the guise of ‘vegetable oil’. “Under current regulations, generic labelling of vegetable oils means consumers are kept in the dark about what is actually in their food,” Dowdle says.
Unfortunately, the process is taking a lot longer than anyone had hoped, as while the Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation agreed to progress in developing a policy for clearer labelling of vegetable oils, they will be further researching how all vegetable oils affect our health before they decide whether to begin a formal process. “The process involved in changing this is unnecessarily slow and extremely secretive. Ministers began this process in 2009 and since then there has been progress, although extremely slow. On [November 25 2016], the ministers of the forum chose to again delay putting the policy out for public consultation,” Dowdle says. “We know that labelling leads to more sustainable palm oil. When the EU introduced mandatory labelling of palm oil, the use of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil went up 65 percent in the six months leading up to the change as companies realised that consumers would soon be asking questions about their palm oil policies.”
Regrettably, time to spare is not something those affected by palm oil have. “The palm oil industry is rapidly moving into rainforest to expand production. This is because of weak local legislation, companies not having sufficient oversight of their own supply chains and the perverse economic incentives involved in harvesting wood, which pays for the setup cost of new palm oil plantations,” Dowdle says.
“This has resulted in the destruction of whole ecosystems and is pushing flagship species like orangutan, tigers, elephants and rhinos to the edge of extinction. In the case of the Sumatran Tiger, there are only 300 left in the wild, down from 400 when we started the campaign five years ago. The issue also extends to indigenous human rights abuses and unprecedented carbon emissions from rainforest burn-offs.”