How to avoid palm oil

Rain­forests are be­ing hacked down at an in­cred­i­ble rate to make way for palm oil plan­ta­tions, but con­sumers can play their part in stop­ping this – by go­ing palm oil free.

Element - - The Cause - By Deirdre Robert

Ap­prox­i­mately 80% of it is used in food prod­ucts. In 2011, 50 mil­lion tonnes of the stuff was pro­duced, with 90% of pro­duc­tion com­ing from In­done­sia and Malaysia. In In­done­sia alone its ex­pan­sion is de­stroy­ing rain­for­est at a rate of 54 rugby fields ev­ery hour. Those are big, scary num­bers for a prob­lem that, in the lives of many con­sumers at least, re­mains largely in­vis­i­ble. Be­cause if you try and find out if palm oil is in a food or cos­metic prod­uct, chances are that you won’t be able to.

In food, palm oil tends to fall un­der the broad cat­e­gory of ‘veg­etable fat’ or ‘veg­etable oil’, de­scrip­tions so vague as to be ren­dered al­most use­less. Cos­met­ics la­bels, mean­while, are enough to send any­one’s head into a spin. While palm oil is of­ten la­belled as ‘elaeis guineen­sis’, it can also fall un­der such names as sodium lau­ryl sul­phate, cetyl al­co­hol, stearic acid and iso­propyl.

If this all looks too big to tackle, take heart in the ef­forts of 17-yearold school­boy Ben Dow­dle. The head boy of Auck­land’s Paku­ranga

“We ar­gue the only way to have a con­sumer cam­paign against palm oil is with la­belling, so you can refuse a prod­uct at the point of sale” –

Ben Dow­dle

High School is spear­head­ing a cam­paign to make palm oil la­belling on prod­ucts manda­tory.

Dow­dle was spurred to take ac­tion af­ter at­tend­ing a Sir Peter Blake Youth En­vi­roLead­ers’ Forum at Auck­land Zoo last year, where he heard var­i­ous speak­ers de­tail the im­pact the palm oil in­dus­try was hav­ing in Su­ma­tra and In­done­sia.

“We de­cided to make our school palm oil-free,” says Dow­dle. “We were go­ing through the school pantry do­ing a palm oil au­dit and re­alised that it’s just about im­pos­si­ble to find out what has got palm oil in it.”

And so, in Septem­ber last year, the Un­mask Palm Oil cam­paign, which en­com­passes both an ed­u­ca­tional com­po­nent for schools and a pe­ti­tion, was born. To date the cam­paign has cap­tured 1500 sig­na­tures across three schools, with a tar­get of 10,000.

“We ar­gue the only way to have a con­sumer cam­paign against palm oil is with la­belling, so you can walk through the su­per­mar­ket and refuse a prod­uct at the point of sale rather than hav­ing to bring a big list with you.”

Kiwi con­sumers aren’t averse to putting the pres­sure on com­pa­nies to act eth­i­cally, as ev­i­denced by the out­cry that erupted in 2009 when Cad­bury an­nounced it was us­ing palm oil as a cheaper al­ter­na­tive to co­coa but­ter in its Dairy Milk choco­late. Pub­lic pres­sure was so great, Cad­bury an­nounced it was tak­ing it out al­most as quickly as it had an­nounced it was putting it in.

The Roundtable on Sus­tain­able Palm Oil (RSPO), which in­cor­po­rates grow­ers, food com­pa­nies, NGO’s, and pro­ces­sors, is work­ing to­wards a sus­tain­able so­lu­tion, but Auck­land Zoo con­ser­va­tion field pro­grammes co­or­di­na­tor Peter Fraser de­scribes its cur­rent ef­forts as “as­pi­ra­tional at best”, adding that we sim­ply don’t have the time to wait for these as­pi­ra­tions to be­come a re­al­ity.

Dow­dle isn’t com­forted by the ef­forts of the RSPO, ei­ther. Un­like the Fair­trade sys­tem, which at least em­ploys the use of an in­de­pen­dent third party to cer­tify prod­ucts, he likens the RSPO’s self-reg­u­la­tion as akin to “me mark­ing my own ex­ams”.

In­di­vid­ual cam­paigns tar­geted at gov­ern­ment level in both Aus­tralia and New Zealand has so far yielded lit­tle by way of pos­i­tive re­sults. In 2008, Food Stan­dards Aus­tralia New Zealand (FSANZ) re­jected an ap­pli­ca­tion for the la­belling of palm oil be­cause it did not per­tain to the sup­ply, qual­ity or safety of food.

But if ut­ter de­struc­tion of habi­tats, in­dige­nous rights and the en­vi­ron­ment isn’t enough to pique gov­ern­ment in­ter­est, then per­haps the health ef­fects of palm oil are.

FSANZ is cur­rently undertaking a re­view of food la­belling law and pol­icy, which in­cludes eval­u­at­ing the costs and ben­e­fits of list­ing types of su­gars, fats and veg­etable oils for is­sues of health and safety (palm oil has a high sat­u­rated fat con­tent).

In 2009 Cad­bury an­nounced it was us­ing palm oil as a cheaper al­ter­na­tive to co­coa but­ter in its Dairy Milk choco­late. Pub­lic pres­sure was so great, Cad­bury scram­bled to re­move it.

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