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Leading article: An oil shock we cannot ignore

Friday 01 May 2009 00:00 BST

There is no shortage of ways to measure the cost of palm oil. First there is the catastrophic impact on the wildlife of Malaysia and Indonesia, whose rainforests are being cleared to grow the crop. The habitat of endangered species, from orangutans to Sumatran tigers, is being torn down at a terrifying rate to make room for the fertile oil palms.

Then there is the destruction on the livelihoods of those tribes which have traditionally lived in these ancient forests. Last, but far from least, the forest clearances, to make room for palm oil plantations, are a significant contributor to the dangerous warming of the planet. The destruction of the planet's rainforests is responsible for a fifth of global carbon dioxide emissions. The unsustainable expansion of the palm oil industry might seem like a problem about which we in faraway Britain have no connection. But now an investigation by this newspaper has demonstrated how closely we are involved. The Independent has established that a host of the food products on sale in our supermarkets are made using the cheap vegetable oil.

The seminal 2006 Stern report into the economics of climate change argued that the first policy response of all governments to the threat of rising carbon emissions should be to stop deforestation. Most of the measures proposed to combat change in the West, from carbon capture to electric cars, will prove meaningless if we fail to deal with this fundamental source of carbon emissions. The only hope is for the richer half of the world to transfer resources to countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil to encourage forms of development that do not involve rainforests clearances.

Such a plan will be on the table at the United Nations climate change negotiations in Copenhagen in December; another reason that meeting needs to succeed. But it would also help, in the meantime, if those of us in the developed world avoid the food products that are made with palm oil. The destruction wrought by the palm oil industry is no longer a distant problem. Its bitter fruits can be found in our shopping trolleys. We need to send a clear message to the food industry by removing them without delay.

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