The hidden oil

A palm oil plantation thrives in the tropical heat on the island of Sumatra, where Indonesia’s palm oil plantations cover nine million hectares of cleared land. Little does it know, the native rainforest that previously occupied this area was a place many endemic wildlife called home. Now, forced to relocate and less protected, orangutans are prey to the pet trade, tigers are killed for their fur, and elephants for their ivory tusks. 

Asia’s only great ape is gentle and slow, an easy target for the pet trade. Photo: Alain Compost, WWF.

There are more than 200 alternative names for palm oil but it is commonly listed under the generic term ‘vegetable oil’. Under Australian food ingredient labelling regulations, it is not mandatory for palm oil to be specified in the ingredients list. If consumers want to avoid the oil for environmental or health reasons, NGO Orangutan Alliance, which promotes the use of palm oil-free products, says the many different terms used to label palm oil are “misleading and hard to recognise”.

In October 2006, Food Standards Australia New Zealand received an application requesting changes to the legislated food code under which palm oil is listed. The application was rejected in 2008 because, according to FSANZ, the application focused on environmental concerns, rather than the quality or safety of food. Since then, public calls for the oil to be labelled have continued, and petitions from Greenpeace and campaigns from Orangutan Alliance and the Palm Oil Action Group are calling for change.

Palm oil is found in everyday products, from snack foods to soaps. According to Zoos Victoria, many Australians are unaware of the “hidden fats and oils” in these products. Palm oil falls under this hidden category, and is found in approximately 50 per cent of packaged foods on supermarket shelves.

Aerial view of palm oil plantation in Borneo on deforested land. Photo: Juan Carlos Munoz, WWF.

The palm oil industry is one of the leading causes for the destruction of rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia. Zoos and NGOs, like the Orangutan Alliance, are advocating for manufacturers to disclose the origin of palm oil used in their products. According to the Orangutan Alliance, 90 per cent of palm oil production occurs on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, habitat to the threatened orangutans, the Sumatran tiger, rhinoceroses and elephants.

Based in Melbourne, the Orangutan Alliance is a non-profit organisation that advocates the reduction of non-sustainable palm oil through their Palm Oil Free Certification program. Orangutan Alliance chairperson Maria Abadilla says the alliance assists consumers looking for palm oil-free products through labelling. “The program works very similarly to cruelty-free or vegan certification. It’s an ethical label, so it assists consumers by letting them know it’s palm oil free.”

Orangutan Alliance Palm Oil Free Certification. Logo: Maria Abadilla.

When asked what she thinks about mandatory labelling, Abadilla says it is about time Australia caught up with the world. “If it cannot be legislated under the FSANZ law, we are requesting that Australia and New Zealand governments move it under consumer law,” she says. “If sesame and peanut oil is labelled, palm oil should be too.”

Perth Zoo has supported Zoos Victoria’s Don’t Palm Us Off campaign since 2009. This campaign encourages consumers to ask for palm oil that is clearly labelled and sourced sustainably. Earlier this year in February, Zoos Victoria removed Cadbury chocolate and Natural Confectionary Company lollies from their shelves because they do not use wildlife-friendly palm oil. Perth Zoo says none of the snack products stocked at the zoo contain unsustainable palm oil and that its stocks are audited regularly.

While Australian consumers may be aware of the environmental impacts of unsustainable palm oil plantations, there are also social ramifications that deprive Indigenous people of their land, local economies and values. Josh Bishop is the head of sustainable foods at WWF Australia. Bishop notes the importance of finding ways to improve the management of renewable natural resources to help people improve their livelihoods. “Indigenous populations that rely on traditional ways of using the forest––for example, hunting, fishing and agriculture––lose access to the resources they need,” he says.

WWF Australia is working with the palm industry to change its practices to reduce negative impacts on endangered species, including habitat destruction, and Indigenous and rural communities, including loss of livelihood. Climate change is another WWF priority.

Bishop says palm oil plantations are usually established in areas that would otherwise be tropical rainforest. “These rainforests contain a lot of carbon bound up in the vegetation and soil and when the forest is cleared or burnt, huge amounts of methane and carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere.”

Bishop says environmental impacts for non-sustainable and sustainable palm oil differ in that sustainable palm oil does not involve killing mature rainforests. “Instead only establishing plantations on land already degraded, such as old agricultural land.” There is more work to be done.

Abadilla says the detrimental consequences of non-sustainable palm oil farming extend to human rights abuses, the way plantations treat their labour forces and the destruction of natural ecosystems. According to Orangutan Alliance, Asia has higher deforestation rates than other tropical regions. By the year 2100 it is expected to lose 42 per cent of its biodiversity.

Sumatran Orangutan female swinging through trees with baby. Photo: Anup Shah, WWF.

In the 2015 documentary, The Last Orangutan Eden, the red apes pour effortlessly through the lush, green canopy of the Leuser Ecosystem in northern Sumatra. The Leuser Ecosystem covers 2.6 million hectares and is one of the richest expanses of tropical rainforest in the world. It is home to 85 per cent of Sumatra’s remaining wild orangutans. According to the 2018 National Geographic short film, A Rare Look at the Secret Life of the Orangutan, we could lose all remaining wild orangutans this century, if the recent rate of devastation continues in Borneo and Sumatra.

Mandatory labelling is not only significant for protecting critically endangered species, it is also in our best interests. Bishop says WWF believes all vegetable oils––and all ingredients––should be clearly identified. “We think the public should have access to as much information as possible about the products they are buying, including details about the social and environmental impacts of those products and whether they meet a credible standard of sustainability.”

In June 2018, the Australia and New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation agreed, over the following 12 months, to consider including specific terms after any general labels on products for fats and oils, such as: vegetable oils [palm oil]. According to the Department of Health, these recommendations will be reported to the ministerial forum for a decision around the middle of this year. 

Abadilla says people can help protect remaining endangered wildlife habitats by demanding to know what’s in our foods and cosmetic products, as well as supporting Orangutan Alliance and other NGOs. “Collectively we are really trying to change and campaign for responsible sourcing so that’s where consumers can help,” she says. “I think that’s where we need to sit to create a better world for the future generation.”

Zoos Victoria Don’t Palm Us Off Campaign. Video: Zoos Victoria.