Dark side of palm oil report wins journalism prize

Malaysiakini.com: November 27, 2009 

A report on how palm oil is destroying virgin rainforest and threatening the survival of the endangered orang utans, among others, in Malaysia and Indonesia was awarded the 'Environment Story of the Year' by Foreign Press Association's Media Awards.

The award was given to Martin Hickman, UK's Independent consumer affairs correspondent yesterday, who had written on use of palm oil in major food brands in the UK thereby promoting logging of the forests, home to some unique species.

The investigative article titled 'The guilty secrets of palm oil: Are you unwittingly contributing to the devastation of the rain forests?' published on May 2, delved on plantation of oil palm described as the "cheapest cooking oil" is contributing to the disappearance of habitat and loss of homes of the indigenous tribes.

The rainforest of Borneo and Sumatra are host to hundreds of mammals, reptiles and freshwater fish as well as tens of thousands of plant species.

Making a living out of the natures reserves are tribal and nomadic communities such as the Dayaks and Penan, who are also being victimised by the ever-progressing oil palm plantation.

According to the article, palm oil was being used is 43 of Britain's 100 best-selling grocery brands which rake in up to 6 billion pounds (RM33.6 billion) annually.

"If you strip out drinks, pet food and household goods, the picture is starker still: 32 out of 62 of Britain's top foods contain this tree-felling, wildlife-wrecking ingredient.

"It's in the top three loaves - Warburtons, Hovis, and Kingsmill - and the best-selling margarines Flora and Clover.

"It's in Special K, Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, Mr Kipling Cakes, McVitie's Digestives and Goodfella's pizza.

" It's in KitKat, Galaxy, Dairy Milk and Wrigley's chewing gum. It's in Persil washing powder, Comfort fabric softener and Dove soap. It's also in plenty of famous brands that aren't in the top 100, such as Milkybar, Jordan's Country Crisp and Utterly Butterly," said the article.

He added that as much as these brands were committed to sustainable palm oil production, none of the manufactures are able to prove that the use of palm oil in their products were sustainable.

"What, then, is 'unsustainable' palm oil?

"Step one: Log a forest and remove the most valuable species for furniture. Step two: Chainsaw or burn the remaining wood releasing huge quantities of greenhouse gas.

"Step three: Plant a palm-oil plantation. Step four: Make oil from the fruit and kernels.

"Step five: Add it to biscuits, chocolate, margarine, soaps, moisturisers and washing powder. At breakfast, when millions of us are munching toast, we're eating a small slice of the rainforest".

Supply sustainability doubtful

Being the cheapest form of saturated fat, 38 million tonnes of palm oil is produced annually for global consumption and almost 75 percent is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia.

"Borneo's 11,000 square miles of plantations produce 10 million tonnes a year while Sumatra's 14,000 square miles yield 13 million tonnes".

Although manufacturers in the UK claim that they are "working to source sustainable supplies - and insist their use is 'small', 'very small' or 'minute', Hickman stated that:

"P&G (says it) uses very little palm oil - about 1 percent of a worldwide production of palm and its derivatives." citing the US household giant Procter & Gamble (P&G), which uses palm oil in its production of detergents, shampoos and soaps.

"One percent of global production is 380,000 tonnes a year. P&G says it hopes to source a sustainable supply by 2015 - six years' time.
"Right now no multinational can vouch that its supply is sustainable. The Anglo-Dutch household giant Unilever, the world's biggest user of palm oil, is swallowing up 1.6 million tonnes a year, 4 percent of global supply.

"It admits the product causes huge damage, but believes it has a solution. Together with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Unilever set up the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2004.

According to Hickman, so far 40 percent of palm oil suppliers are now members of RSPO, and they have pledged to not "chainsaw any virgin forest; but they are still allowed to chop down degraded forest".

"The best plantations can obtain RSPO certification for sustainability - but only 4 percent of global supply (1.5 million tonnes) is currently certified sustainable.

"Unilever has publicly committed to sourcing only certified palm oil by 2015. Premier Foods has a date of 2011, United Biscuits 2012. Most companies, however, including Cadbury, Kellogg's, Nestlé, Mars and Heinz, have given no commitment to switch to an RSPO-certified supply. They merely say that their suppliers are members.

He added that environmental groups are wary that the RSPO is a "greenwash", a camouflage for a "or a programme of vicious and unrelenting deforestation".

"Even the RSPO concedes that its members have subsidiaries who plant palm oil, and who are not bound by - and do not abide by - its rules."