The perils of palm oil
by Fred Pearce - July 03, 2007
Once, our margarine was made from whale oil. That was always controversial. In the 1930s, Norway blockaded British "blubber-boiling" ships owned by the giant food company Unilever. It demanded that they cut the cull, to save the whale.
In the 1950s, the Greek shipping mogul Aristotle Onassis was employing Hitler's old whaling captains to run the world's largest whaling fleet. And, far from being bashful about the business, he boasted to guests on his yacht that the bar stools were covered in white skin from whale scrotums. All this so the blubber could be spread on our sandwiches.
Thank heaven that is over. Most whaling is now banned, and our taste in margarine has moved on. We prefer vegetable oils like palm oil. But now some of those vegetable oils are in trouble, blamed for rainforest destruction.
I eat palm oil several times every day without knowing it. So do you. Palm oil is in an estimated one third of all the products we pick up off the supermarket shelves. Margarine or biscuits, chocolate or crisps, ice cream or pastry, instant soup or noodles or coffee whitener... Usually, they contain palm oil.
And we don't just eat it. Palm oil is in our soap, detergents, toothpaste and shampoo. Britain alone consumes over a million tonnes of palm oil a year. That works out at about 20 kilograms ? or 40 tubs ? for each of us.
Most of the world's palm oil comes from two countries: Malaysia and Indonesia. Mostly it grows on old rainforest land. Remember when the forests of Borneo burned back in 1998? Three-quarters of the fires had been lit by people clearing land for palm oil.
Now, not content with filling our kitchens and bathrooms, the purveyors of palm oil want to top up our fuel tanks. Palm oil makes good biodiesel. To meet soaring demand, Indonesia intends to extend its plantations from 6 to 9 million hectares. Most of the increase will be from converting a chunk of rainforest in central Borneo the size of Wales into the world's largest palm oil plantation.
Green fuel? You have got to be kidding.
The big palm-oil trading companies like Unilever have formed a Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil. But an official report from their last meeting said talk of sustainability in the industry was currently "a pipe dream".
No wonder that green-minded retailers like Wal-Mart and Tesco don't have much to say about where the palm oil in their products originates (though Tesco has joined the Round Table above).
Can I suggest a place to start? McDonald's says it will no longer serve meat made from animals fed with soya beans from recently deforested land. So how about a similar rule for palm oil in our biscuits? The industry could begin by announcing a ban on palm oil from Indonesia's new super-plantation.
Otherwise we will have saved the whales, only to finish off the jungles.
Source - Fred Pearce, Senior Environment Reporter