Food firms cannot claim the palm oil in their products does not destroy rainforests because supply chains are so complex, scientists say.
“No-deforestation” promises printed on packaging could be failing despite the good intentions of manufacturers, according to a report by researchers at Imperial College London.
Palm oil plantations in eastern Asia are blamed for pushing orangutans, Borneo elephants and Sumatran tigers to near-extinction as their rainforest habitats are being continually torn or burned down. The destruction also releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, reduces biodiversity and drives indigenous people from their homelands.
The oil is used in manufacturing half of all products in supermarkets – from biscuits, snack bars, cereals and margarine to soaps and shampoos.
Under public pressure over the harm caused by its production, many food giants now claim to use “sustainable” or “no-deforestation” palm oil, printed on labels.
But the new study said it was “problematic” to guarantee genuinely deforestation-free palm oil products.
Barriers include the complexity of the supply chain; a lack of consensus on definitions of deforestation; inadequate government support and persisting markets in China and India for unsustainably produced palm oil.
And campaigns by environmental groups and non-governmental organisations are unlikely to be effective in preventing rainforest destruction, the research warns.
Lead author of the report, Joss Lyons-White, a conservation scientist at Imperial College, who interviewed 24 companies and environmental representatives for his report, told The Independent consumers should look at companies’ commitments and whether they were likely to meet them.
He said the issue was complex partly because views on how to define deforestation differed between eco activists, for example, and producers on the ground.
“There’s a feeling among some producers that ‘zero-deforestation’ is a Western imposition,” he said. “Some participants said it was a marketing term. Governments have different priorities such as economic growth and socio-economic development.”
Inconsistent government regulations and confusion over land ownership were also barriers to producing ethical oil, while high demand in India for unbranded cooking oil also played a role, said Mr Lyons-White.
Based on the amount of land used, palm plantations are more productive than other types of oil so have become increasingly popular in the food, toiletries and fuel industries.
The report said simply banning palm oil production or applying pressure to countries is not an answer.
“The existing model used to address palm oil-driven deforestation, based on NGO shaming campaigns and unilateral adoption of commitments by individual companies, is unlikely to achieve no deforestation in the current context of palm oil production and trade,” it said.
Instead, new ways should be found to ensure that green commitments can be implemented successfully, it concluded.
Mr Lyons-White said environmental awareness in Europe was creating huge demand for palm oil that was certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which reduces deforestation by a third so has a “positive impact”.
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