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Big Nature Debate

2 Posts tagged with the sustainability tag

Helen Buckland is UK Director, Sumatran Orangutan Society


Palm fruit.jpgThe world’s voracious appetite for palm oil - an ingredient found in up to half of all packaged supermarket products in the UK - is fuelling the destruction of some of the most biodiverse rainforests on the planet, home to countless species, including the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan (see Whilst every individual has the right to make choices about the food they eat and the cosmetics they use, I feel that a boycott of products containing palm oil is not the answer to saving Indonesia’s forests, for a number of reasons.


In order to boycott products containing palm oil, you need to know which ones to avoid – which is not easy. Palm oil is usually a hidden ingredient in food and cosmetic products, listed simply as “vegetable oil” on packaging, so it is currently almost impossible to make informed choices about what you buy at the supermarket.


Even armed with a palm-oil-free shopping list, protesting with your wallet may have some unintended consequences. Oil palms are the most productive oil seed in the world – more than 10 times as much oil is produced from a hectare of oil palms as other crops. If companies are forced to switch to alternative oils, even more land could be put at risk by increasing demand for oils which need larger plantations. Soybeans, for example, tend to be grown under a similar model to oil palms: huge monocultures, often at the expense of tropical forests in South America. We do not want to export the problem - saving the Southeast Asian rainforests from conversion at the expense of the Brazilian Amazon, swallowing up even more forest in the process. We simply want forest conversion to stop.


Palm oil is a “wonder crop” when it comes to meeting the huge global demand for vegetable oils, accounting for more than a third of the world’s supply. Countries such as India and China rely on huge palm oil imports to meet their populations’ nutritional needs, bringing billions of dollars to top producer countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. As long as the world needs vegetable oil, there is no question that the palm oil industry will continue to grow; what we need to be concerned with how this expansion happens.


The development of new oil palm plantations does not need to entail forest destruction. While precious ecosystems are being devastated, millions of hectares of abandoned land lie idle, available for cultivation.  It is estimated that the amount of land growing oil palms in Indonesia could quadruple without impacting forests (, enabling the industry to grow whilst drastically reducing its environmental footprint.


wild male.jpgThe Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was established to create a clear set of standards for reducing the environmental impacts of the industry. Change has been slow, and it’s not a perfect system, but oil certified as sustainable according to these standards has started to trickle into the world market.


Many millions of hectares of forests have already been lost to the palm oil industry. It is absolutely critical that the conversion of forests is stopped. We need more research into how to increase output on existing plantations, as current yields are in many cases well below their potential, and this would reduce the need for cultivating more land.  Environmentally-sensitive land use planning, improved productivity, responsible investment by banks and purchasing by manufacturers and retailers are all crucial to halt the conversion of Indonesia’s forests for agricultural development.
So what can you do to help? If you know a certain product contains palm oil, and would rather not to buy it on that basis, make sure that you write to the company that makes it and tell them. You can also demand that companies use only certified sustainable palm oil, and to clearly label this on their packaging. Making your voice heard really can make a difference – several big companies have already made commitments to cleaning up their palm oil supply after hearing from their customers about this issue - see the WWF website for a list.  We can all also pressure our elected officials to make decisions that help conserve our planet's limited resources and threatened biodiversity, and save precious species, including the orangutan, from extinction.


For further information on the environmental and social impacts of the palm oil industry see:


John Jackson is Science Policy Co-ordinator at the Natural History Museum.


The Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 (GBO3) published in May 2010 says that, ’The target agreed by the world’s Governments in 2002, “to achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth”, has not been met.’


Biodiversity loss is not slowing - Jonathan Ballie’s post refers to the Buchart et al. paper in Science that reaches that conclusion with scientific data. The CBD secretary’s note for Nagoya states that not a single country has reported that it has met the 2010 target “to achieve a significant reduction in the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010”. For the UK, the 2010 JNCC Biodiversity Indicators in Your Pocket shows that things look good if you are a bat, but less good news for birds and plants.


GBO3 is a key document in looking forward from Nagoya and is well worth reading - straightforward and not too technical. It points to some progress on controlling pollution and managing protected areas, but otherwise the global picture looks grim: species diversity; genetic diversity; sustainable use and consumption; habitat loss; invasive species; climate change; access and benefit sharing; policy development; and other areas - for all of these the record is not good.


So a question for debate: 2020 will be the next set of targets. What is going to make this approach more of a success than 2010? What needs to change?


Twenty 2020 targets have been drafted for Nagoya, part of a 195-page document, and propose for agreement that by 2020 (a somewhat arbitrary selection):

  • Target 1: all people are aware of the values of biodiversity and the steps they can take to conserve and use it sustainably.
  • Target 5: the rate of loss and degradation, and fragmentation, of natural habitats is [at least halved][brought close to zero].
  • Target 10: to have minimized the multiple pressures on coral reefs, and other vulnerable ecosystems impacted by climate change or ocean acidification, so as to maintain their integrity and functioning.
  • Target 12: the extinction and decline of known threatened species has been prevented and improvement in the conservation status [for at least 10% of them] has been achieved.
  • Target 14: ecosystems that provide essential services and contribute to health, livelihoods and well-being, are safeguarded and/or restored and equitable access to ecosystem services is ensured for all, taking into account the needs of women, indigenous and local communities and the poor and vulnerable.
  • Target 19: knowledge, the science base and technologies relating to biodiversity, its values, functioning, status and trends, and the consequences of its loss, are improved, widely shared and transferred, and applied.


Ambitious? Extremely. Necessary? Absolutely. Practical? That is up to us.  What are we going to do now that will enable us all to congratulate ourselves on how well we have done since 2010?