Food firms cannot claim the palm oil in their products does not destroy rainforests because supply chains are so complex, scientists say. “No-deforestation” promises printed on packaging could be failing according to a report by researchers at Imperial College London.
Palm oil plantations in eastern Asia are blamed for pushing orangutans, Borneo elephants and Sumatran tigers to near-extinction as their rainforest habitats are being continually torn or burned down. The destruction also releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, reduces biodiversity and drives indigenous people from their homelands. The oil is used in manufacturing half of all products in supermarkets – from biscuits, snack bars, cereals and margarine to soaps and shampoos. And almost half of the palm oil imported into the EU, mostly from Indonesia and Malaysia, is used as biofuel after blending it into vehicle fuel was made compulsory in 2009.
Under public pressure over the harm caused by its production, many food giants now claim to use “sustainable” or “no-deforestation” palm oil, printed on labels. But the new study said it was “problematic” to guarantee genuinely deforestation-free palm oil products. Barriers include the complexity of the supply chain; a lack of consensus on definitions of deforestation; inadequate government support and persisting markets in China and India for unsustainably produced palm oil. And campaigns by environmental groups and non-governmental organisations are unlikely to be effective in preventing rainforest destruction, the research warns. Inconsistent government regulations and confusion over land ownership were also barriers to producing ethical oil, while high demand in India for unbranded cooking oil also played a role.
Lead author of the report, Joss Lyons-White, a conservation scientist at Imperial College, told The Independent,“There’s a feeling among some producers that ‘zero-deforestation’ is a Western imposition. Some participants said it was a marketing term. Governments have different priorities such as economic growth and socio-economic development. The existing model used to address palm oil-driven deforestation, based on NGO shaming campaigns and unilateral adoption of commitments by individual companies, is unlikely to achieve no deforestation in the current context of palm oil production and trade.”