Catalyst Spring 2014

The Hidden Ingredient in Global Warming

By Sharon Smith

Chances are good that you’ve eaten or used a product containing palm oil today. The average American can encounter palm oil, which is derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree, in the morning (shampoo, soap, lotion, cosmetics), at noon (crackers, cookies, fast foods), and at night (laundry and dish detergents). Its versatility, combined with low production costs, has made palm oil the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. But this popularity comes with a price.

Oil palm fruit is the source of the world's most widely used oil. The trees can only be grown in tropical regions, in areas often rich in forest cover and biodiversity.

Oil palm trees can only be grown in tropical regions, in areas often rich in forest cover and biodiversity. Growing demand for vegetable oil, combined with lax environmental regulations, has led many producers to clear forests to make way for palm oil plantations. When these forests are cleared, they release carbon dioxide (the primary global warming gas) into the atmosphere.

Furthermore, while tropical forests store vast amounts of carbon, the peat soils on which some of them grow can contain as much as 18 to 28 times more carbon. The high water table in peat soils prevents leaves and woody materials that fall to the forest floor from fully decomposing, so more of their carbon is captured in the soil; this allows peat in Southeast Asia to store an amount of carbon comparable to that in all of the Amazon’s aboveground vegetation. Peatlands that have been drained for agriculture are also more susceptible to fire, which can release even more carbon into the atmosphere.

Oil palm production has more than doubled around the world since 1990, and oil palm plantations now cover more than 40.6 million acres—an area greater than the state of Georgia. Most of that expansion has occurred in Indonesia and Malaysia, though oil palm is increasingly grown in tropical Latin America and Africa as well.

Companies respond best to consumer pressure, and several
have already made a commitmnet to produce or purchase
deforestation- and peat-free palm oil.

Steps in the Right Direction

Tropical deforestation is not an inevitable outcome of palm oil production. Through a combination of efforts, such as improving yields and planting on already-deforested lands, palm oil can be produced in sufficient quantities in a way that protects forests and our atmosphere. But without pressure from the public and the global marketplace, producers are not likely to adopt these practices. That’s where UCS comes in: we have been on the front lines of these efforts, working with a diverse group of stakeholders—including our members—to push for reforms and ensure they are as strong as possible. These reforms include:

What’s in Your Waffle? (Or Shampoo, etc.)

Our new report highlights palm oil leaders and laggards.

A number of large corporations have demonstrated that it is possible to make popular, profitable consumer products while safeguarding tropical forests. Many others, however, have not followed suit. To help bring attention to these differences, UCS scored 10 top-selling companies in the snack food, fast food, and personal care sectors on the extent of their commitments (if any) to use palm oil that is deforestation-free, peat-free, and transparently and traceably sourced. The results showed a wide range in policies both between and within sectors; see our findings on each company.

Armed with this information, you can send a clear message to companies: if they are to maintain the loyalty of customers like you who care about tropical forests, peatlands, endangered species, and our future climate, they must commit themselves to responsible palm oil production.

Tell major brands to source deforestation-free, peat-free oil.

Producer commitments. Making improvements at the source is the key to ensuring other companies in the supply chain can reduce their impacts on forests. Last fall, UCS experts were invited to shape a new environmental policy being adopted by Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil trader and one of the world’s largest producers. The final policy, announced in December, has put strong standards in place to preserve forests and peatlands while protecting plantation workers and nearby community members. This is a tremendous victory for forests, as this single company controls nearly half of the international trade in palm oil every year, selling to powerful global brands such as Unilever and Kellogg’s.

Purchaser pledges. Many of America’s top consumer product companies rely heavily on palm oil, and UCS has been working with several of them (including Hershey’s and Kellogg’s) to make commitments to sourcing deforestation-free palm oil. We have seen early signs of progress, but because companies respond best to consumer pressure, we are also creating a variety of materials to build consumers’ awareness of where these top companies stand on palm oil, and to translate this awareness into action (see the sidebar).

Certification standards. UCS is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an alliance including palm oil growers, buyers, and non-governmental organizations working to reduce the negative impacts of palm oil production. The RSPO has developed a set of voluntary certification standards for palm oil suppliers and purchasers, and we are working with our fellow members to strengthen the standards in a few key areas where they currently fall short, such as in allowing palm oil to be produced on peatland and secondary forestland (i.e., forests that have been disturbed or partially logged, or are regenerating). The next round of standards, which are updated every five years, will be announced in 2018.

Improving practices along the entire supply chain will be critical to reducing palm oil’s impact on global warming and preserving the biodiversity of tropical forests. With your help, we can make deforestation-free, peat-free palm oil a reality. Learn more about—and get involved in—our campaign to transform this industry.

Sharon Smith is campaign manager for the UCS Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative.