Palm oil plan aimed at saving orangutans

ABC News: Alexandra Kirk: June 22, 2011

TANYA NOLAN: The Federal Coalition has joined an unusual alliance with the Greens and independent senator Nick Xenophon to support legislation making it mandatory for palm oil to be labelled in all Australian foods.

Currently palm oil is labelled as vegetable oil.

But a campaign by conservationists says consumers have the right to know whether foods contain the oil.

The campaign’s been driven mainly for environmental reasons.

Large tracts of forests in Malaysia and Indonesia are cleared to make way for palm oil plantations, destroying the habitat of the critically endangered orangutans in the process.

From Canberra Alexandra Kirk reports.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: The legislation will be debated in the Senate tomorrow and is now assured success in the Upper House with the Coalition agreeing to demand palm oil be identified as an ingredient in Australian foods.

At the moment it appears as vegetable oil and is a common ingredient in many products.

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert says it’s not possible for consumers to avoid palm oil because there’s no way of knowing they’re eating it.

But the legislation will change that. She says a recent Senate inquiry teased out the public’s two-pronged concerns.

RACHEL SIEWERT: The bulk of people that are looking at this issue are probably more focused on orangutans, but there are certainly people that are concerned about some of the health aspects as well.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Another key driver of the legislation, independent Senator Nick Xenophon, says Australians consume 10kg of palm oil a year and don’t know it.

He says while other vegetable oils contain as little as 2 per cent saturated fat, palm oil is 50 per cent saturated fat and consumers are demanding better labelling.

Much of the impetus has come from a Zoos Victoria campaign.

RACHEL LOWRY: We have orangutans in our care here at Melbourne Zoo, and a lot of people are becoming informed about the palm oil issue, and we don’t want to leave people feeling as though it’s all just too hard and it’s impossible and they can’t do anything about it.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: The director of wildlife conservation Rachel Lowry says there’s a strong link between palm oil production and the threat of extinction for the orangutan in Malaysia and Indonesia.

RACHEL LOWRY: The production of palm oil is essentially destroying the habitat and homes of orangutan species.

We have in horrifying footage, images coming through to us almost daily here at Zoos Victoria.

We have staff that go across to Indonesia for skill share programs that are bringing back reports of orangutans being displaced, being killed, essentially returning to burning fields or fields that have been cleared for – put palm oil crops in.

And so the United Nations has warned that, you know, we’ve got one to two decades to save this particular species.

If palm oil cultivation continues to go at the rampant rate it’s at – because it is the world’s most popular oil which is why boycotting it is ridiculous, we need to move to an actual sustainable production of palm oil, we can’t just move off it completely – we will lose the orangutan.

And it will happen in our lifetime. It’s a very real issue.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Both Senator Rachel Siewert and Rachel Lowry believe empowering consumers will have an effect.

RACHEL SIEWERT: There are lots of aware customers out there who do stop buying or change their buying habit.

People are becoming aware of the fact that if they make a stance by not buying products with palm oil that will then force the manufacturers to start ensuring that palm oil is produced in a sustainable manner.

RACHEL LOWRY: If the manufactures produce a certified sustainable palm oil I can guarantee they’ll make a noise about it and let you know that it’s orangutan-friendly or however they decide to communicate that with you.

Eighty-five per cent of the world’s palm oil comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, so you can have a pretty good sense of where it comes from.

But what we want to know is whether or not it’s coming from virgin rainforest or whether it’s done in a certified sustainable way.

And at the moment when it’s labelled as vegetable oil you and I have absolutely no choice as to what we’re buying.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Senator Nick Xenophon has congratulated the Coalition for discovering some redheads they don’t want to see extinct.

It’s not clear yet whether the legislation will have enough support to pass the House of Representatives.

TANYA NOLAN: Alexandra Kirk reporting.


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