Countless acres of pristine rainforest around the world have been cleared to grow palm oil, a substance used in many of today’s processed foods. Processed food itself has a very bad rap, increasingly found to be bad for human health, but that’s another story. The trouble is, big food brands are trying to tell us their palm oil is sustainable… and that’s a big, fat marketing fib. According to scientists, claims that palm oil farming does not damage rainforests is ‘problematic’, because the supply chains involved are so very complicated.
If you see a ‘no-deforestation’ statement printed on food packaging, walk away. While some food manufacturers might have good intentions, a report by researchers at Imperial College London say there’s no way to tell whether a batch of the oil is to blame for damaging and destroying forests where precious creatures like orangutans, Borneo elephants and Sumatran tigers – all near-extinct – live. Producing the oil invariably reduces biodiversity and forces local people from their land.
Palm oil is used to make half of all supermarket products, including biscuits, snacks, cereals and margarine, even soap and shampoo. Public pressure had led manufacturers to claim the palm oil they use is sustainable, with no deforestation, but the complexity of the supply chain, lack of consensus on the definition of ‘deforestation’, no real government support and an ongoing demand for unsustainable, unbranded palm oil across India and China are making a nonsense of the often half-hearted conservation efforts that are being made.
At the same time campaigns by environmental groups and others are proving ineffective in the face of palm oil-led destruction. Government regulations are inconsistent. There’s even widespread confusion about who owns the land being deforested.
Sadly, simply banning palm oil production and applying more pressure to countries who produce it isn’t the answer. NGO shaming campaigns are not enough. Unilateral adoption of commitments by individual companies isn’t enough. We need strong, concerted action to prevent even more deforestation in the name of a product that many feel is so destructive that it has no place in the food chain.