The orangutan is humanity's closest living relative. Unfortunately, this hasn't stopped us wiping them out, currently at a rate of about 5,000 a year. Once widespread in South-East Asia, wild orangutans now survive on just two islands: Borneo and Sumatra. By the year 2018 they may only exist in zoos. The main threat to this intelligent creature is the production of an oil which shows no sign of peaking. Palm oil.
Palm oil is cheap and versatile. It increases a food's shelf life. And it's used in hundreds of products. Bread, biscuits, cereals, chocolate, cooking oil, cosmetics, crackers, crisps, detergents, ice cream, margarine, soap, soup and toothpaste can all contain palm oil. Look in your bathroom or kitchen and, chances are, you'll find several products containing palm oil. It can also be used to make biodiesel.
Palm oil comes from the fruit of the oil palm Elaeis guineensis. Native to West Africa, where palm oil has been used for centuries, the oil palm was introduced to the East Indies by the Dutch (Java, 1848) and the British (Malaya, 1910). South-East Asia is now the centre of world production, with ninety percent of exports coming from plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia.
These plantations are increasing in size, with vast swathes of rainforest burned each year – legally and illegally – to clear the land for palm oil production. The destruction of tropical forests threatens biodiversity, displaces indigenous people and endangers two large mammals: the orangutan and the Sumatran tiger. There are thought to be just 400 Sumatran tigers still living in the wild. Elimination of the rainforest removes a carbon sink, important if we are to slow global warming. And burning the forest releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Some palm oil producers and large-scale users appear to have a conscience about this. In 2003 the Worldwide Fund for Nature and Unilever founded the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Others joined, including the major British supermarket Sainsbury and growers from all over the world. RSPO aims to define and encourage best practice in the palm oil industry and provide certificates to those who meet the standards set. At present, however, most palm oil comes from uncertified sources. Palm oil with an RSPO certification is about ten percent more expensive than the rest – a big difference to cash strapped consumers, most of whom remain unaware of the issues.
Those who are concerned about palm oil face few choices. For most people, eliminating palm oil from the shopping basket will prove almost impossible, so ubiquitous is the ingredient. It is sometimes labelled simply as 'vegetable oil', making it hard to spot. And knowing whether the palm oil in a product is produced sustainably is harder still. Possibly the best we can hope to achieve is to reduce our consumption of palm oil by reducing our consumption of food and cosmetics overall. And perhaps lobby politicians, supermarkets and food companies to sign up to the idea of sustainable production, complete with clear labelling for the consumer.
If not, as we sit and munch our processed snacks, we might at least reflect that the world will be a duller place without the Wild Man of Borneo, the close relative whose home we burned down.
Shoppers' thirst for palm oil threatens to wipe out orangutan (Independent, 23 May 2006)
Supermarkets get slippery over green palm oil promises (Guardian, 4 December 2009)
WWF snaps rare Sumatran tigers (Johannesburg Star, 7 January 2010)
Campaign to save tropical forests failed by food giants (New Zealand Herald, 25 January 2010)
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil