From Sumatra To Safeway – The Palm Oil Trade In Your Supermarket

(Photo Credit: Momenti Senza Glutine Blog)


This feature story was written for a first year University assignment.


From Sumatra to Safeway – The Palm Oil Trade In Your Supermarket
by Julia Sansone
23rd October 2015

You wash with it, you brush with it, you spread it on your toast, you cook with it, you eat it and you drink it. It is in 50 percent of what you buy, but why do only a handful of Australians know a single ingredient can cause so much destruction?

Palm oil is a type of edible vegetable oil that is derived from the palm fruit, grown on the oil palm tree and it poses many environmental problems. It is the largest driver of Indonesian deforestation – every two minutes a football pitch of rainforest, known as the “lungs of the planet”, is destroyed to make room to grow this ubiquitous ingredient. The story of palm oil starts here.

The destruction of these rainforests, crucial to human survival, are also destroying the habitats of endangered animals and eradicating the source of income for many villagers, forcing them into laborious, underpaying jobs in palm oil refineries that release immense amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Palm oil grows primarily in biodiverse countries. Indonesia is the largest producer – with plantations spanning more than six million hectares. Malaysia follows as the second largest, estimated to produce 39 percent of the world’s palm oil.

The product is in just about everything an Australian would use: food snacks, cookies, spreads, ready-meals, baby products, cosmetics, soaps, detergents and personal hygiene… The list goes on. What’s even more surprising is that the ingredient is also widely used in the production of textiles, paints, electronics and even biofuel. Palm oil is everywhere, and while people are aware of the issue it creates, they remain unknowing that the products they buy only further contribute to the problem.

A good way to understand how this product is present in your life is by going into your pantry and reading the labels of the biscuits that you have purchased, an ordinary cream hazelnut spread, a packet of chips or loaf of bread and you will be amazed by the difficulty it takes to identify whether these products contain palm oil or not.

Between 1962 and 1982 global exports of palm oil have increased from half a million to 2.4 million annually. The Food and Agriculture Organisation forecasts by 2020, the global demand for palm oil will double. By 2050, it will be tripled.

And although 42 percent of all palm oil is consumed in underprivileged countries such as India, Indonesia and China as a cheap cooking oil, informing Australians of the impact they are making with every supermarket shop is what Jacquie O’Brien, Communications Manager at Melbourne Zoo, believes is the first step to a worldwide change.

“Our ‘Don’t Palm Us Off’ campaign that started in 2009 started off focusing on the labelling of palm oil in Australia. Laws in Australia pretty much said it was okay to label palm oil as vegetable oil and there wasn’t a huge community knowledge on palm oil or the threat of palm oil.”

I sit with Jacquie in the Zoo’s café as it opens up for the morning. The aggressive churning of the coffee machine juxtaposes against her cool and collected voice, that feels like the delicate ripples of water making their way down a stream.

“People didn’t know the food that they were eating was actually driving this destruction in South East Asia.”

Jacquie and the Don’t Palm Us Off campaign had a glimmer of hope for the mandatory labelling of Palm Oil back in 2010 When Senators Nick Xenophon and Bob Brown proposed the Food Standards Amendment (Truth in Labelling – Palm Oil) Bill. The Bill sought to change current food labelling rules to require that all food products containing palm oil must specifically list it as an ingredient.

But with the change of Government happening at the time, Jacquie believes the Bill got lost in the House Of Representatives amongst other issues Parliament considered more important at the time.

“It was a lengthy process. Whilst the political side of the battle has died off, manufacturers are seeing needs to address the issue, and we hope consumers do the same.”

Jacquie sips on her green tea and discusses Certified Sustainable Palm Oil as a current improvement, but not a resolution.

“CSPO is palm oil that has been grown and produced in a sustainable, non-destructive way. It is not perfect but it is the best thing we have at the moment. It is the sort of thing that you can build on it to make things better.”

In Indonesia, 28 million people live below the poverty line and struggle with basic needs such a health care, education and nutrition. I ask if swapping to CSPO or even further, opting out of the palm oil trade altogether, is a viable option that these people can afford.

“Palm oil is known in Asia as a ‘poor person’s oil’, but in actual fact, what we are finding is that manufacturers are selling CSPO at the same price as unsustainable palm oil.”

“It’s not just about how expensive the palm oil is – it is about the bigger, irreversible consequences.”

Although CSPO is a better alternative than the further deforestation of already scarce rainforest, a clear question emerges – why aren’t companies making the swap sooner and holding accountability for the ingredients they use through labelling palm oil?

Jacquie has been working on the Don’t Palm Us Off campaign for seven years, yet I can still hear the passion in her voice like it is her first day campaigning. She, like many others devoted to environmental issues, are hungry to see change for the mandatory labelling of palm oil in supermarket products.

“Food labelling is not up to scratch with what consumers should have access to.”

The vehemence in her voice makes me visualise she is speaking up on a podium in front of palm oil plantation manufacturers, convincing them to change their ways. With this issue continuing to consume and destroy Indonesia for over 50 years, Jacquie’s tone is completely reasonable – a change is well overdue.

“Consumers need to be able to make a decision – this could be an environmental decision, a health decision or a social decision… It doesn’t matter what you want to make your decision on, you should be able to have access to this information.”

While many popular Australian companies such as Nestle, Smiths, Kellogg’s and even beauty care brands like Proctor & Gamble who manufacture Pantene, Olay and Herbal Essences have committed to making the swap to certified sustainable palm oil, there is a long way to go.

Complete transparency from companies is not necessarily easily obtainable. Well known Australian brands may make a promise to the Roundtable Of Sustainable Palm Oil, who govern the use of palm oil globally, yet there is no set guarantee that they will label this small yet harmful ingredient on their packaging or in menus.

According to Food Standards Australia New Zealand, the country’s official food standard guide, palm oil can be labelled as ‘Vegetable Oil’, ‘Vegetable Fat’ or concealed under the title of colourings, flavourings or preservatives.

Yet according to a well-loved Australian business that did not want to be identified, this information is incorrect.

A sense of accomplishment rushed through me as shares, likes and comments of encouragement flooded the Facebook newsfeed after I asked the company, who pride themselves on being environmentally and health conscious, to answer a simple question, “Do you use palm oil?”

This short moment of glory soon ended when I was forced to delete the question. Hundreds of people who supported the post in under an hour were left in the dark.

The businesses’ product and supply manager told me privately that the thickener in their yoghurt is what contained palm oil and they would prefer to “focus on the positives” instead of addressing the issue. I was not allowed to disclose this information to the group of social media users, eager to know an answer.

Customer posts on the company’s Facebook wall dating back to 2013 about their use of palm oil have still remained unanswered. The overzealous manager told me new menus would be distributed in the next week or so, which suggested promising signs of change.

However as I flicked through their new booklet the week later, there was still no palm oil labelling.

Camille Santiago is a Brisbane blogger and completed the Borneo Trek For Orangutans in 2014. She too, is angered by the lack of action that is taking place in Australia.

“For the longest time I was frustrated, feeling the need to contribute to a bigger cause in a more hands on way. It wasn’t enough to donate to charity, or to put the right trash in the right bins—I wanted to do something more.”

The trek that takes place in Borneo, Indonesia, gives individuals like Camille who are passionate about environmental issues, an opportunity to see what so many people are fighting to protect.

“We were taken to a part of the rainforest that was still pristine, still beautiful, and protected by the Indonesian government and WWF. I think it’s better this way, because rather than instilling a sense of hopelessness in us (and there’s already plenty of that), we were able to fall in love with the true nature of the rainforest and get to know what it was that was worth protecting.”

Camille believes that by making consumers aware of palm oil, change can be achieved.

“Most people don’t realise palm oil is in everything they own: shampoos, cosmetics, detergents, chocolate, ice cream. Mandatory labelling of palm oil on products is certainly a step in the right direction as it will help consumers to choose more consciously, and therefore reduce the overall demand for palm oil, but it would be better if we could eliminate palm oil as an ingredient altogether.”

But even with Australian-owned businesses rejecting consumer pressure and refusing to be transparent, I ask myself, how will organisations even begin to put a dent in the multi-national brands we buy and use every day? Are we just a needle in a haystack?

Jacquie believes education programs such as the Don’t Palm Us Off campaign and schools program at Melbourne Zoo is the most important tool to increasing awareness and ideally, changing consumer habits.

“This campaign, more than any other campaign, gets schools thinking. We’ve done this in Australia, now we need to take this overseas and help mentor zoos in other countries to do the same.”

Understanding what products contain palm oil is not often an easy task, but organisations and programs exist in Australia in order for you to make an informed choice.

Not-for-profit organisation “Palm Oil Investigations”(www.palmoilinvestigations.org) have developed a smart phone barcode scanner app for consumers to use while at the supermarket as well as a print out, wallet sized list of ingredients also known as palm oil.

The Melbourne Zoo “Zoopermarket” (www.zoo.org.au/zoopermarket) allows you to find out what big name brands use palm oil and send an almost instantaneous, direct email to companies, asking them to switch to CSPO.

As I sit in the Orangutan Sanctuary at Melbourne Zoo after my chat with Jacquie, I observe the way zoo visitors interact with the Don’t Palm Us Off campaign exhibition. Kids frantically climb chairs to scan food items and stare blankly at a screen when it tells them the product uses unsustainable palm oil.

But in what seems to be a slow progression of change for the palm oil industry, I still see glimmers of hope in the world around me.

A child tugs on her mother’s jacket and stares curiously at the glass window barricade her and a playful orangutan.

“The orangutans live here because there aren’t enough trees left in the forest,” the girl’s mother explains.

The girl appears perplexed and places a small, delicate finger on her cheek. “Do you think they miss their family?” she asks.

The caring Mum smiles and nods her head as she reaches out for her child’s hand. They walk out of the exhibition and I get the sense that both mother and daughter have learnt something new today.

Educating society on the issue of palm oil is in no way the resolution to the issue, but is most definitely the first and most important step.

While significant and progressive change has not yet been made, I have a hope that burns fervently inside of me that the next generation of world leaders can, and will, make a difference.


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