How Britons Fuel Destruction of the Rainforest
British consumers are fuelling the rising demand for palm oil, speeding up the destruction of rainforests and killing off orangutans
A cooking oil that is driving the
destruction of the rainforests, displacing native people and
threatening the survival of the orangutan is present in dozens of
Britain's leading grocery brands, an investigation by The Independent has found.
oil - blamed for a tree-felling rampage in south-east Asia - is present
or suspected in 43 of 100 best-selling brands in UK, far more than the
one in 10 products estimated by Friends of the Earth four years ago.
oil is present in Hovis and Kingsmill bread, the country's best-selling
margarine Flora, KitKat and Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bars, as well
as Dove soap, Comfort fabric conditioner and Persil washing powder.
The research - the first time palm oil, which is usually labelled as
"vegetable oil", has been definitively quantified in British products -
comes amid a surge in demand for the world's cheapest cooking oil.
United Nations Environment Programme believes palm oil is the major
driver of deforestation in the vast islands of Borneo and Sumatra.
Hundreds of thousands of acres of forest are cleared to make way for
plantations from which 90 per cent of wildlife disappear, including the
orangutan, which is fighting a losing battle against extinction.
Orangutan numbers have dwindled by 90 per cent since 1900, with the
rate of loss accelerating in recent decades.
Emissions from the
chainsawed peat-rich forests of Indonesia (which owns Sumatra and half
of Borneo) are also thought to generate 4 per cent of global greenhouse
At present only 4 per cent of palm oil production
is certified sustainable by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
(Rspo), meaning that the vast majority of global supply is linked to
the forest gold rush. All companies contacted by The Independent said they were talking to suppliers about moving to a sustainable supply.
most of them - including Cadbury, Kellogg's Nestlé, Mars and Heinz -
have set no date for the process. Nestlé said: "Nestlé shares concerns
about the serious environmental threat to rainforests in south-east
Asia and supports an end to deforestation. Palm oil is not a major raw
material and... the company's use of palm oil has been declining
Mars said: "We do use palm oil in our chocolate, but
only work with suppliers who respect the environment and are committed
to working with all stakeholders to make progress towards sustainable
WWF, formerly the World Wildlife Fund, called on
manufacturers to start matching rhetoric with reality by buying
sustainable oil, which costs between 10 and 35 per cent more than
ordinary supplies which are mixed at refineries.
Jan Kees Vis,
Rspo chairman, said that manufacturers did not want to pay more for a
hidden ingredient. "The volume of certified palm oil traded is
disappointingly low so far, the reason for this being that many
companies are not prepared to pay a premium for certified oil," he told
Originating in West Africa, palm oil has
become a £14bn-a-year industry. Some 38 million tonnes are produced
annually. Manufacturers use the oil to bind and bulk out chocolate,
biscuits, bread and margarine and to give a creamy consistency to soaps.
85 per cent of the global supply comes from Borneo and Sumatra, where
corruption is rife and where incursions into the forests are enforced
by gun-toting security guards.
Satellite pictures have shown the
rapid loss of the islands' rainforests, which, in addition to the
orangutan, contain endangered species such as the clouded leopard,
Sumatran tiger, and sun bear. Survival International, the London-based
human rights group, says that palm oil producers supplying world
markets are evicting indigenous people such as the Penan in Borneo from
their land. In an interview taped earlier this year in Borneo, a Penan
villager recalled: "There were no official discussions. The company
just moved in and put up signs saying the government had given them
permission to plant oil palm on our land. The manager promised he would
pay us whatever we wanted. But we already know that the companies
lie... If oil palm is planted, we will lose our land... there will be
no more forest."
Global demand for palm oil is rising at between
6 and 10 per cent a year. Although yields could be raised to meet the
demand, suppliers have a financial incentive to chop down forest for
hardwoods for furniture, which subsidises the plantations before the
first oil is produced.
If current rates of logging continue, the
UN Environment Programme estimates that 98 per cent of forests in
Indonesia may be destroyed by 2020.
Around 16 per cent of global
palm oil arrives in the EU. Companies often refuse to disclose whether
their products contain palm oil.
However, after piecing
together information from the companies, The Independent has
established that palm oil is contained or suspected in 43 of the Top
100 grocery brands. Of the nation's £16bn spending on the top 100
brands, £5.5bn goes on brands which contain, or are suspected to
contain, the oil. Thirty-three out of 62 food brands contain palm oil.
Only a few British firms, including Unilever and Sainsbury's, have bought large amounts of Rspo-certified oil.
Palm, a Hull-based company which trades Rspo certificates, says it has
struggled to find corporate buyers. The Food and Drink Federation said
the UK was "a small player in the complex global market for palm oil",
importing only 1.2 per cent of the annual crop for manufacture here.
Tait, Greenpeace's forests campaigner, said: "If you buy products from
Unilever or Nestlé, ask what measures they are taking to remove
unsustainable palm oil from their supply chain. Public pressure makes
Ancient oil: Modern uses
oil is made from the fruit and seeds of the oil palm (elaeis
guineensis), an edible plant long used as a cooking oil by villagers in
West Africa, which now has a wide range of industrial applications.
Palm oil is so prized because in addition to being the world's
cheapest, it is "uniquely fractionable". Chemical processes can
separate solid (stearin) and liquid (olein). Manufacturers use the
versatile oil in a wide range of foods and household products and,
increasingly and controversially, it is used as a biofuel.
Household names: Big brands and palm oil
Uses palm oil in 50 products, mostly cereal bars but also cereals such
as Special K and Crunchy Nut, where it binds together clusters. Does
not buy sustainable palm oil.
Cadbury (UK) Pours palm oil
into chocolate bars, including Cadbury Dairy Milk, where it is listed
as vegetable oil. Uses 40,000 tonnes a year, none certified as
Mars (US/UK) Uses palm oil in Mars Bars,
Galaxy and Maltesers, where it is labelled "vegetable fat". Does not
buy sustainable palm oil. Says it wants to.
Procter & Gamble (US)
Makes Ariel, Daz and Fairy Liquid, where use of palm oil is suspected
but unproven. Says it will have a sustainable supply by 2015.
World's biggest user of palm oil, which is found in Flora margarine,
Pot Noodle, Comfort and Persil. Buys 1.6m tonnes a year - 4.2 per cent
of global production. Acknowledging the damage to its reputation and
the environment, Unilever set up the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
Says it does not use palm oil in Dairylea cheese but does in other
products. Buys half a per cent of global supply. Says it will move to
sustainable palm oil by 2015.
Heinz (US) Uses palm oil to fry potatoes for Aunt Bessie's Potatoes, which it makes under licence.
United Biscuits (UK) Uses palm oil across its range including McVitie's Digestives and McCoy's crisps. Says it is reducing quantities.
Nestle (Swiss) Palm oil in KitKat, Quality Street, Aero and other brands.
Premier Food (UK)
Uses in Hovis, Mr Kipling Cakes, Bisto Gravy and Cadbury cakes (made
under licence). Hopes to move to a certified sustainable supply by 2011.
Makes Walker's crisps. Has one of the best corporate policies, only
using palm oil in Quaker Oat Granola and Nobby's Nuts. Intends to phase
out use on those two products.