Conflict Palm Oil in Every Grocery Aisle

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SAN FRANCISCO, California – In September, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) launched a campaign calling on the snack food industry to commit to responsible palm oil policies which source palm oil free from deforestation and human rights violations. Palm oil is a key ingredient in almost half of the processed foods sold in grocery stores, like ice cream, cookies, crackers, cereals, baby formula, soups and frozen meals. RAN publicly named 20 snack food companies, including major American brands, for not having sufficient policies in place to ensure their supply of palm oil comes from sustainable and humane sources.

The “Snack Food 20” group of companies are – Campbell Soup Company; ConAgra Foods, Inc,; Dunkin’ Brands, Inc.; General Mills, Inc.; Grupo Bimbo; Hillshire Brands Company; H.J. Heinz Company; Hormel Foods Corporation; Kellogg Company; Kraft Food Group, Inc; Krispy Kreme Doughnuts Corp.;  Mars Inc.; Mondelez International, Inc.; Nestle S.A.; Nissin Foods Holdings Co. Ltd.; PepsiCo, Inc.; The Hershey Company; The J.M. Smucker Company; Toyo Suisan Kaisha, Ltd.; and Unilever. 15 of these 20 are American companies.

These companies produce a wide range of snack foods that contain palm oil. RAN’s campaign aims to get the Snack Food 20 only to source “responsible palm oil” – that which is produced legally and can be verifiably traced back to the plantation it was grown. RAN criticizes that too often palm oil is bought under a label or certificate of 100 percent sustainable when in fact the claims are questionable. The Snack Food 20 have significant buying power as a group, grossing more than $32 billion in revenue annually with markets all over the world. RAN reasons that together, these companies can help transform the way palm oil is produced by demanding responsible palm oil, not conflict palm oil, from their suppliers.

Conflict palm oil is produced under conditions associated with the ongoing destruction of rainforests, threatening the existence of endangered species like the orangutans. Expansion of palm oil plantations into carbon-rich peatlands also emits dangerous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. There are social costs as well. Increasing demand for palm oil forces plantations to encroach into the lands of indigenous peoples and rural communities, sometimes without their free, informed and prior consent. And there is growing evidence of child labor, slave labor and human trafficking involved.

More than 85 percent of global palm oil is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia. In Indonesia, the area covered by palm oil plantations has grown by 600 percent since 1990 – nearly 20 million acres of land in 2013 (about the size of Maine) Indonesia has plans to double the size of palm oil plantations to 44 million acres – thus becoming one of the world’s leading causes of rainforest destruction. This demand for palm oil is partly due to changes in United States food labeling laws about trans fats.  U.S. food companies have shifted to using palm oil for its low trans fat content. Outside developed countries like the U.S., the World Bank expects demand to double by 2020.

The clearing of forests with fire to prepare lands for palm oil plantations have been linked to the polluting haze that reached Singapore and beyond. The smog caused record levels of air pollution in Singapore and forced hundreds of Malaysian schools to close. Annual carbon emissions related to deforestation in Indonesia alone are greater than all the cars, trucks, planes and ships in the U.S. combined.

Growing environmental concerns run alongside serious human rights violations. A 2012 U.S. Department of Labor report found that palm oil was among the industries most notorious for forced and child labor. Among the estimated 3.7 million workers in the palm oil industry are thousands of child laborers and workers who face dangerous and abusive conditions. Debt bondage is common, and traffickers who prey on victims face few, if any, sanctions from business or government officials.

Palm oil companies have run unabated because they have faced little pressure from consumers to change. They have continued to rely on largely unregulated contractors who often conduct illegal practices. Herein lies the Rainforest Action Network’s strategy: get consumers to pressure the Snack Food 20 into responsible procurement practices.

Thanks to social media and the fast-paced proliferation of information via the world wide web, RAN is getting the message out. Joint public awareness efforts with other NGOs like Greenpeace succeeded in getting Nestle and Unilever to recently make pledges towards the use of more sustainable palm oil.

The fight continues until the other companies improve their supply chains. RAN is intending to approach each Snack Food 20 company. Grupo Bimbo, Campbell, Heinz, Pepsico, Dunkin, Kellogg’s, Mars, Smucker, Kraft, and Mondelez were some of the stops along their tour of the Snack Food 20 thus far.

Wilmar International Ltd. announced in a statement on December 5 it will launch what it calls a “No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation” policy that, Wilmar says, “aims to advance an environmentally and socially responsible palm oil industry.” Although Wilmar is not part RAN’s Snack Food 20 list, the commitment to responsible sourcing of palm oil is a big win for activists. The Singapore-based agribusiness company is the world’s largest trader of palm oil, controlling 45 percent of palm oil traded.

The Wilmar pledge is a step in the right direction, but more work needs to be done. In October, Kellogg’s told its customers and concerned environmental groups that responsibility was held by its supplier, the agribusiness giant Wilmar International. Rainforest Action Network’s senior campaigner, Gemma Tillack, responded to Kellogg’s statement:

“If Kellogg’s is serious about its stated commitments to achieving responsible palm oil supply chains, it cannot shirk its responsibility by deflecting attention to its supplier, known bad actor, Wilmar. In fact, in 2012, Wilmar was named the world’s least environmentally friendly company by US news magazine, Newsweek…”

Even with Wilmar’s new responsible palm oil policy, accountability has to be found in everyone involved, including consumers. Informed consumers will not tolerate it when they learn of wrongdoing along a company’s supply chain. Take for example the unfortunate tragedy of this year’s collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh due to unsafe building structures.

Rana Plaza was home to a large number of textile mills that supplied apparel for 23 brands including Benetton, Walmart and Primark.  The death of over 1,100 Bangladeshi garment workers in the collapse was the catalyst in bringing more than 50 brands to sign up to a legally binding building safety agreement backed by international trade union IndustriALL and the Bangladeshi government.

We shouldn’t wait for a tragedy like Rana Plaza’s to compel people to take action and force change. The Snack Food 20 plays a big role, and so do consumers – from the developing world to the developed.

- Maria Caluag

Sources: Rainforest Action Network, British Broadcasting Corporation, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Guardian
Photo: Earth First Journal 

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