Palm oil production, management, labelling problematic

A palm plantation in Sumatra. Photo: Getty Images
A palm plantation in Sumatra. Photo: Getty Images
A new species brings new pressure, writes Melanie Vivian.

With the recent thrilling discovery of a new great ape species the impetus to resolve the threats to its survival from issues related to the palm oil industry are amplified.

The new ape species, the Tapanuli orangutan, has been found in Sumatra and with only 800 individuals remaining it is now one of the world's most threatened ape species. As, Prof Serge Wich, one of the lead researchers who made the discovery points out: ``It's very worrying to discover something new and then immediately also realise that we have to focus all of our efforts before we lose it.''

The biggest threat posed to this newfound ape, along with the Bornean and Sumatran organutans, is the palm oil trade.

Palm oil is, however, not the enemy. Palm is a wonderfully productive plant, and if not palm then plantations would likely need to be replaced with another oil-producing plant, in far greater numbers, impacting on a greater number of ecosystems. It is the way in which we are producing, managing and labelling palm that are the issues.

The surge in the demand for palm oil has driven the large-scale conversion, much of it unregulated, of rainforest to palm plantations resulting in wide-ranging environmental and social issues, including endangering native flora and fauna, displacing local peoples and increasing carbon emissions.

If we were to transform the entire palm oil market into one where Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) is the norm then there would be a positive impact for animals, people and the environment. Everyone has a part to play in this, from governments, to companies and manufactures within the supply chain, to retailers, to consumers.

The issues in the palm oil trade are numerous and complex, including the seemingly insatiable appetite for inclusion of the oil within products, corruption within systems and countries, lack of clarity within the palm oil supply chain, and for consumers - lack of transparency to enable crucially helpful consumer choices.

Palm oil is present in up to 50% of products on supermarket shelves, yet in New Zealand there is no requirement for explicit labelling of palm oil. Currently palm oil can be included in a vast array of describers, from the cover-all of vegetable oil, to chemical names and numbers.

Consumer purchasing power is a powerful way to bring about industry change. However, consumer pressure in New Zealand is hampered as products in this country are not required to detail the type of oil they contain. As such, our labelling legislation is below the standards held by the European Union, Canada and the United States. By having palm oil specifically identified on product labels consumers would be then be able to demand the use of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO).

In New Zealand the labelling regulations of consumer goods is overseen by the Australasian Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation, on which New Zealand has just one vote. Slow progress is being made by the forum on this issue. A year ago the forum vote on mandatory labelling was stalled while ministers asked for further research on how vegetable oils impact human health. As time goes on, habitats continue to be destroyed, animals continue to lose their lives and forests are burned and lost, adding to the march forward of climate change.

Dr Jane Goodall urged action during her tour this year: ``The destruction of old-growth forests where the orangutans live, that's a huge problem, which New Zealand can do something about by insisting on labelling products that have palm oil in them.'' As part of the Responsible Palm Oil Network, the Jane Goodall Institute New Zealand has a vision that 100% of all products in New Zealand are deforestation-free.

We call on the new Government of New Zealand, and concerned members of the public, to incite positive change within the palm oil industry through regulation and clear labelling of palm oil products.

Animals, people and our environment, our fellow apes, are relying on us to sort these issues out, and now, before it is too late and our newly discovered relatives are gone forever.

We cannot wait any longer. They cannot wait any longer.

Dr Melanie Vivian is CEO and co-founder of the Jane Goodall Institute New Zealand.


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