By Martin Oliver
Of all crops grown throughout the world, palm oil probably comes closest to being the most environmentally destructive. And most of us buy it each time we go shopping.
For the conscientious smart phone owner, finding out in which product it’s lurking has become easier: a free App from Palm Oil Investigations (POI) is available via iTunes and Google Play.
It’s worth being diligent in avoiding palm oil because of the crop’s sinister effects on the planet.
All palm oil is grown in highly biodiverse tropical regions close to the equator, with an estimated 85 to 90 per cent cultivated in Malaysia and Indonesia, on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.
Much of the total production is linked to deforestation and peatland destruction, making palm oil a major contributor to climate change via emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. This is a disaster for biodiversity, with orangutan numbers on a downward trend. Other wildlife species under threat from the palm oil industry are elephants, tigers and
From a consumer perspective, palm oil is found in about 40 per cent of items on supermarket shelves, and is widely used because it is the cheapest vegetable oil on the market. As a result of concern about the palm oil issue, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004, and there has been some progress towards implementing sustainable practices.
‘Palm oil is a major contributor to climate change via emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide’
Hidden under aliases
The simplest way for consumers to respond is to buy products without any palm oil. But this is easier said than done. For Australian and New Zealand food labelling, palm oil is permitted to be hidden under generic aliases such as ‘vegetable oil’, ‘vegetable fat’ and ‘vegetable shortening’. Currently, the only way to be sure is to avoid every product labelled in such a way.
The Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation, overseeing food decisions in Australia and New Zealand, has twice postponed making a decision about labelling oils such as palm by name, and Zoos Victoria is running a campaign known as ‘Don’t palm us off’ that encourages people to lobby their state representative.
A 2017 Galaxy poll found that 90 per cent of Australians and 92 per cent of New Zealanders surveyed wanted palm oil to be labelled.
Another option is to buy items containing physical Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO), identifiable by a special logo. Certified product now represents about half of global production, and oil that is part-certified and part-uncertified is usually referred to as ‘mass balance’. A weaker system, but better than nothing, involves the GreenPalm offset certificates, again identifiable via a different logo. It is particularly important to be wary of vague sustainability claims that lack accreditation.
Free App provides read-out
To facilitate consumers in making meaningful choices, in 2015 a group named Palm Oil Investigations (POI) launched a palm oil scanner App for smartphones following a year of preparation. Limited to items available in Australia and New Zealand, it works for iOS and Android platforms, and is available for free via iTunes and Google Play. POI remains active on this issue, and accepts donations via a GoFundMe crowdfunding page.
After scanning a product barcode, shoppers are given a read-out of its palm oil status. The options are:
- Palm oil-free (35 per cent of scans)
- Company has a no-deforestation policy (11 per cent)
- Certified sustainable palm oil (9 per cent)
- Mass-balance part-uncertified palm oil (8 per cent)
- Uncertified palm oil (16 per cent)
Expands ethical choices
If the shopper is not happy with the product, the App generates an email that can be sent to the company, and better ethical choices are displayed alongside. The App even enables buyers to track and improve their ethical purchasing percentage.
Improving the database is a group effort, and if shoppers encounter a product that is missing, they are encouraged to send in the details.
Among the large supermarkets, both Coles and Woolworths have been criticised by POI because while both claimed to be using certified sustainable oil in their own-brand ranges, there were deficiencies in certification covering the whole supply chain, or in the auditing. Following complaints to the RSPO, both were found to be in breach of RSPO rules and received letters in April 2017. While Woolworths has since complied, Coles has so far not, according to POI, and is at time of writing subject to an ACCC investigation. RSPO membership alone does not imply that oil is sustainable, and there are rules that on-pack CSPO labelling must be accompanied by both the RSPO logo and the RSPO licence number.
If hard questions are going to be raised, it is worth asking why it is responsibility of billions of consumers worldwide to attempt to stop the palm oil-driven environmental destruction of Malaysian and Indonesian rain forests, when the same outcome could be achieved at a miniscule fraction of the effort and expense by their respective government agencies.
RESOURCES Palm Oil Investigations; www.palmoilinvestigationsapp.com
Palm Oil Investigations on Facebook; www.facebook.com/palmoilproductsinAustralia
Palm Oil Investigations GoFundMe page www.gofundme.com/poifundraiser
Don’t Palm Us Off campaign –
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore, NSW.