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   Nov 09

‘Sustainable’ palm oil linked to catastrophic rainforest fires

Suppliers of “sustainable” palm oil to Britain’s biggest supermarkets and food brands have been linked to devastating rainforest fires.

Shoppers are being misled by the industry’s “100 per cent certified sustainable” labelling scheme which is like “a henhouse insurance scheme run by foxes”, according to a Greenpeace report. The authors said that major producers in the scheme were themselves responsible for five years of deforestation in Asia.

Palm oil is present in up to half of products on supermarket shelves, including cosmetics, toiletries and food. Large parts of rainforest have been cleared for plantations to meet demand for the oil, which is extracted from the fruit of oil palm trees and is significantly cheaper to produce than other vegetable oils. As well as the environmental damage, forest clearances have seen orangutans lose 80 per cent of their habitat in the past 20 years.

Forest fires are lit to clear land for plantations but many are started by accident, although it is impossible to know the precise proportion. In Indonesia an area five times the size of London has been destroyed this year, releasing an estimated 465 megatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, an amount close to the UK’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions. The smoke has also created a polluting haze across much of the region, triggering acute respiratory infections in hundreds of thousands of people.

The report, Burning Down the House, accuses the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) of being linked to more than 1.2 million hectares of fires across Indonesia since 2015.

The report links Unilever, Mondelez, and Nestlé to thousands of fire hotspots. These companies use palm oil to make products such as Kit Kats, Cadbury’s chocolates and Dove shampoo.

Richard George, co-author of the report, said: “Consumers are being conned by ‘certified sustainable palm oil’, a phrase that’s bandied about by supermarkets and big brands attempting to distance themselves from deforestation. But the phrase is utterly meaningless because the body responsible for certifying palm oil is made up of some of the most destructive growers and producers in Indonesia.”

The campaign group used satellite data to analyse fire hotspots across Indonesia this year and government “burn scar” data from 2015-18 to identify which producer groups were most linked to the country’s fires. It said that more than two thirds of the 30 producer groups with the greatest exposure to fires were members of the Roundtable.

The RSPO disputed Greenpeace’s methods and said that it had better mapping technology that showed only 0.4 per cent of the fire hotspots were on its members’ land.

Greenpeace said the group only looked at a one-week snapshot of data from September but it had analysed information from January to October.

It said the supply chain was so murky it was difficult to be sure where RSPO-certified palm oil came from, with many members supplied by smallholders. It added that even if fires were started by accident, palm oil plantations had contributed to the problem by draining peatland for their crops, making the land more flammable, and not investing enough in fire prevention.

Last year Iceland became the first British supermarket chain to pledge to remove palm oil from its own-brand products but all the UK’s other major supermarkets still use RSPO palm oil.

Nestlé said it was “closely monitoring” the situation. A spokesman said: “We will cease sourcing from any supplier found to be linked to any deforestation. Ten suppliers have already been removed from our palm oil supply chain for not

Unilever said it had been leading efforts to end deforestation and was reviewing its list of companies and extended supply chain to ensure they complied with its policy. “Better monitoring helps all of us to understand whether fires have been deliberately lit,” a spokesman said.

Mondelez promised to investigate Greenpeace’s claims and “take action” against “verified fire allegations”. It accepted the urgent need for monitoring in the sector to provide one verified source of data about deforestation by palm oil companies.

The RSPO said the Greenpeace report “missed the mark” and that it used a host of mapping and fire monitoring tools. It added: “Our members who were investigated [for fires], provided documentation such as police reports to explain the hotspots and occurrence of fire. Certifications bodies will also be conducting additional independent on-ground investigations.”

Ubiquitous ingredient

Head & Shoulders shampoo (P&G) £4.99 for 450ml, Superdrug
Palm oil is the conditioner element in shampoo that helps to restore natural oils stripped during cleaning. Palm oil-free shampoo brands such as Ethique have sprung up but it remains a specialist product found mostly in health

Flora original spread (Upfield)
£2 for 500g, Sainsbury’s
Margarine is used instead of butter because it is seen as being healthier. Palm oil is the substitute for trans fats found naturally in butter. Flora has been popular with vegans since going plant-based in March but there is no indication that it will be removing palm oil.

Cadbury dairy milk (Modelez)
£1.50 for 200g, Tesco
Palm oil stops chocolate melting but is not essential. Brands such as Montezuma, Divine and the Raw Chocolate Company do not use it but their bars can be up to quadruple the price.

Ritz original crackers (Mondelez)
£1.39 for 200g, Waitrose
Used in many baked goods, palm oil keeps crackers solid and gives them their creamy texture. There are alternative biscuits on the market but they are mostly from health food brands such as Nakd.

Dove original soap (Unilever)
£3.95 for six bars, Boots
Palm oil helps to moisturise skin and remove dirt. Manufacturers are reluctant to remove it but Unilever has long pledged to use only traceable and certified sustainable sources by 2020.

Behind the story
Greenpeace believes that the only practical thing consumers can do to help to save the world’s rainforests is to avoid products with palm oil — and let brands and supermarkets know that is what they are doing (Andrew Ellson writes).

But going palm-oil free is not easy. About half of all products in supermarkets contain it and although it must be labelled on foods, it does not have to be labelled on toiletries and cosmetics. This means consumers would have to check with manufacturers.

Products made without palm oil are likely to cost more because other vegetable oils are more expensive to produce. There is also a risk that other oils are worse for the planet because their production requires more land for the same yield.

The WWF said that a boycott would “neither protect nor restore the rainforest”. It favours implementing “rigorous standards” to ensure that firms act sustainably. It also wants legislation to remove deforestation from food supply chains. So to add pressure, write to supermarkets, or if a parliamentary candidate knocks on your door, say that saving the rainforest is an issue for you.

Source: Sunday Times


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