Palm oil - enough is enough

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Two days ago, a relatively small British supermarket called Iceland were banned from airing their advert highlighting the destruction of rainforest for oil palm plantations and the impact this has on one of our apes, the orang-utan. The British public and media are collectively voicing their discontent at this decision and calls for the UK Government to take action on deforestation for oil palm have been gradually gaining momentum. However, action at this scale is not going to be enough. 

Palm oil is a global commodity. India is estimated to have imported 11,600 megatons in 2018, followed by the EU, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the United States. The oil is widely used in foods, cosmetic products and biofuels and is now being grown across the tropics - Indonesia and Malaysia may still be the biggest exporters but Colombia, Guatemala, Peru and Ghana, amongst many others, are also palm oil producers. 

Many producer countries are poor. Growing oil palm presents an opportunity to support their economy and improve the quality of life for many farmers and processers and this is entirely understandable. In addition, the global human population is rapidly expanding and so is demand for oil.

The answer does not appear to lie in stopping oil palm imports. Iceland's move to stop using oil palm in its own brand products has served as an excellent platform for highlighting this issue but even if all British supermarkets did the same, the impact on oil palm production would be negligible. Furthermore, oil palm is a high yielding crop - if production stopped, other oils would take its place placing an even bigger strain on the natural environment but there is plenty of land available for cultivation that has far fewer negative impacts.

The UN needs to work more effectively with tropical countries through schemes such as REDD+ to create effective management, regulation and enforcement in the production of truly sustainable oil. Currently, certified sustainably produced palm oil, such as RSPO, cannot be considered sustainable. It sets criteria but takes little action against breaches, including oil palm grown on newly deforested land and grants certification to poorly performing producers. At present, it simply isn't working, and many producer countries do not have the necessary resources to resolve it.

Unhappy voices from the UK will not be loud enough to stop the threat of deforestation. We need global unification to stop this pervasive, increasing threat to our natural environments. Politicians must start listening. A huge amount of evidence from scientists and social scientists exists on the impacts deforestation is having on biodiversity - not just the iconic orang-utan but many other mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians - as well as the loss of carbon stores and negative effects on indigenous and local communities. To those within the UN with the power to take responsible and decisive action we say - enough is enough.