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Do you have the right to know whether the chocolate bar you're munching on includes palm oil, which is blamed for vast deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia? How about that frozen pizza? According to a coalition of environmental and conservation groups it's time for food manufacturers to add palm oil to the label in Europe, instead of currently being listed as simply, and erroneously (palm kernels are fruits), 'vegetable oil'.
"Clearer labels will ensure that the consumer can be confident that they aren’t buying a product that is responsible for clearing globally important forest areas and the biodiversity contained therein," said Ashley Leiman, Director of the Orangutan Foundation, in a press released. While orangutans have become the de-facto symbol of palm oil critics, deforestation in the region also threatens Javan and Sumatran rhinos, Asian elephants, sun bears, clouded leopards, Sumatran tigers, and thousands of little-known species.
The Orangutan Foundation is being joined by the Sumatran Orangutan Society, Elephant Family, Save the Rhino, The Jane Goodall Institute—UK, and Ape Alliance in a campaign to amend a recent food bill, known as the Sommer Report, in the European Parliament to require that palm oil is listed on labels.
While palm oil is the world's most productive oil seed (far outstripping soy, which has been linked to deforestation in the Amazon), it is responsible for a significant percentage of deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia. For example, a study in Conservation Letters found that 55-59 percent of palm oil plantations in Malaysia built between 1990 and 2009 occurred on forested land. Such aggressive deforestation has contributed to an environmental crisis in the region: biodiversity loss in some of the world richest habitats, conflict with indigenous groups who depend on the forests for their livelihood, and substantial greenhouse gas emissions. Given such statistics, the coalition is urging the public to write to MEPs on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Parliamentary Committee and ask for clear palm oil labeling.
However, industry players want the European public to know that not all palm oil is created equal in environmental destruction.
"Any initiative to empower customers to make better buying decisions would be welcomed by any responsible company," Puvan Jegaraj Selvanathan, palm oil giant Sime Darby's Chief Sustainability Officer, told mongabay.com. "Certainly if a label has to be applied at all for palm oil then it should clearly differentiate for [Certified Sustainable Palm Oil]. However, palm oil is only one of many ingredients found in many products on supermarket shelves. Any labeling seeking to promote ethical buying in a meaningful way should assure consumers that all the ingredients in the product […] are responsibly produced, not just the palm oil."
The campaign agrees that supporting sustainable palm oil is a part of the solution.
"We do not advocate a boycott of products containing palm oil. We are supporting this campaign because we believe this new legislation could be a crucial tool in helping us to drive the demand from Europe for certified sustainable palm oil," says Helen Buckland, UK Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Society.
The pressure campaign on the palm oil industry has recently pushed one of the most heavily criticized companies to promise change. Golden Agri-Resources Limited, which owns PT Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology (SMART), has promised to ban development on carbon-rich peatlands and in high conservation value (HCV) forests. Their newly announced policy also targets social problems linked to palm oil expansion, such as establishing free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) for indigenous and local communities and complying with Indonesian laws and RSPO Principles and Criteria.
While environmentalists wait for government to act, some retailers, including Cole Supermarkets in Australia, have already started to voluntarily label palm oil as an ingredient on their private products. Other companies, including McDonalds, Walmart, Nestle, and Unilever have pledged to use only palm oil from certified sustainable sources by 2015.
Chatham House is assessing the scale and effectiveness of the response to illegal logging and the related trade around the world. Full details of this work, including analysis and data, will be available online soon.