Oily palms and trees
Greenpeace says Fonterra’s massive importation of palm kernel as supplementary cattle feed finances the felling of Indonesian rainforest and accelerates climate change. Fonterra doesn’t want to talk about it, but says its palm kernel supplies are sustaina
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that Indonesia lost 9.36 million hectares of forest between 2000 and 2005, an area the size of Portugal. The United Nations Environment Program acknowledges that in Malaysia and Indonesia the main driver of this destruction is the conversion of forest into palm oil plantations. According to the environmental group WWF, between 1997 and 2001, Indonesian palm oil production increased from 6.6 million to 9.5 million tonnes and, in 2000, the planted area had reached more than three million hectares. Palm oil is a major source of income there, where GDP per capita is just US$3000 a year.
Regimented lines of palm oil trees can never replace the rainforest’s incredible biodiversity – its astonishing collections of plants and animals. In Indonesia, this includes the endangered orang-utan and Sumatran rhino; and amazing new species that are still being discovered.
The loss of the world’s rainforests is also accelerating climate change. Various estimates state that between one quarter and one fifth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are caused by global deforestation. And it’s a double whammy. With the removal of so much abundant plant life, we are losing one of the Earth’s most effective ways of regulating the chief greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. Big global corporations like Unilever, Kraft and Nestlé have responded to these concerns by suspending multimillion-dollar palm oil contracts with companies where their supply of palm products has been linked to deforestation.
But according to Greenpeace 1.4 million tonnes of palm kernel expeller (PKE), the kernel that is left over after it has been crushed to harvest the oil, were imported to New Zealand last year. This represented a $230 million investment, and a rise from just 1554 tonnes in ten years. Much of this was imported and sold by RD1, which is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Fonterra. Greenpeace says this makes New Zealand the world’s biggest consumer of PKE, hoovering up about a quarter of what’s available, with Fonterra the major player.
Fonterra and the government have repeatedly dismissed this issue by saying PKE is a “waste product”. Greenpeace argues that when you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on something it ceases to be a waste product, and becomes a very lucrative one. The group believes increasing the profitability of palm oil plantations incentivises and finances the clearing of rainforest to create more of them. So, in recent years they have lobbied, created online ads, social networked, occupied palm kernel shipments and raided Fonterra offices to disrupt this trade and raise awareness.
In a written statement, Fonterra has accepted that in some cases deforestation has been driven by the establishment of palm oil plantations, and says it shares concerns about the destruction of rainforests in South East Asia. However, it argues that its supply of PKE is sustainable and that it does not support deforestation, directly or indirectly.
The company has stated that all the PKE sold at RD1 is imported from a single source, Wilmar International, a company that practices a ‘no burn’ policy, does not develop land designated to have high conservation value and employs wildlife protection experts.
Wilmar International is also a member of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a non-profit organisation aimed at developing and implementing global standards for sustainable palm oil. Several of the company’s plantations are certified as sustainable by RSPO, and it is currently working on getting the rest of them certified by 2014.
But Nathan Argent, Greenpeace NZ climate campaigner, says: “The RSPO has received significant criticism for having standards that are not only too weak to begin with, but are habitually ignored by its members, who continue to destroy rainforests and peatlands for palm oil.”
Specifically, Greenpeace says Wilmar International buys more than half its palm products from third parties who may well not be certified at all. The water is muddied further by the fact that WWF, another environmental organisation, help set up the RSPO, was a founding member, and has remained one of its most vocal supporters.
Carrie Svingen, WWF International’s Palm Oil spokesperson, says that while the RSPO is the only credible scheme out there demonstrating that palm oil can be produced without unacceptable forest loss or social impacts, it is still very new and developing all the time. She is also adamant that the fact that Fonterra’s suppliers are in the RSPO does not necessarily give its PKE importation a clean, green bill of health.
“To demonstrate responsible sourcing Fonterra or any other company should buy only certified PKE,” she says. “Being a member of the RSPO themselves or buying from other RSPO members is not enough. More than one million tonnes of certified palm kernels are available annually so there should be ample opportunity to source them.”