By Nadeem Badshah
FAMILIES have been urged to reduce their use of products containing palm oil in order to save the world’s rainforests and wildlife.
The controversial ingredient is used in over half of goods sold in supermarket, including cooking oil, chocolate, breakfast cereals, butter, shampoo and toothpaste.
Greenpeace India has warned that palm oil plantations are destroying the habitat of animals, including orangutans, rural communities and forests in the north eastern part of the country. It has also caused damage to rainforests in parts of Malaysia and Indonesia.
Britain’s War on Want charity has called for more information on product ingredients and tougher rules for companies operating in countries such as India. An estimated 50 per cent of items that an average Indian uses daily contain palm oil, with consumption rocketing by around 230 per cent.
This week India informally asked palm oil refiners and traders to avoid buying Malaysian palm oil, government and industry sources said on Tuesday (7), following Malaysian criticism of India’s actions in the Kashmir region and its new citizenship law.
India is the world’s largest buyer of the oil and palm oil inventories could spike in Malaysia, putting prices under pressure if Indian refiners reduce purchases from the country. Malaysian prices are the global benchmark for palm oil prices.
A senior official in India’s vegetable oil industry, who did not wish to be named, said the government had asked refiners at a meeting attended by two dozen vegetable oil industry officials in New Delhi on Monday to boycott Malaysia.
“In Monday’s (6) meeting, we have been verbally told to avoid buying Malaysian palm oil,” the official said.
“We’ve had various rounds of meetings within the government and industry to see how we could reduce imports from Malaysia,” one Indian government official said, adding India has yet to firm up a plan of action and is exploring options.
Asad Rehman, War on Want’s chief executive, told Eastern Eye: “People do not see what is in their products they buy, you cannot tell what’s the story of environmental damage and labour.
“We are calling for the regulation of corporations to make them accountable [for] the impact on the environment.
“As citizens, we expect our government to do that for us. Find alternatives, limit use of the products. All of us are becoming more conscious and ethical, we demand structural changes.”
Rehman, who previously served on the boards of Friends of the Earth International and Global Justice Now, added: “India is the main importer of palm oil, around 20 per cent, of global demand. It has a huge role in that.
“At best, there are non-binding agreements to make palm oil sustainable – voluntary codes do not work, we need enforcement and regulation.”
The ingredient, dubbed green gold, is from the fruit of the oil palm tree. Products made without palm oil are likely to cost more because other vegetable oils are more expensive to produce, according to food experts.
There is also a risk that other oils are worse for the planet because their production requires more land for the same yield.
Chef Manju Malhi believes boycotting products containing palm oil is not the solution as it could encourage companies to use other products that may have more impact on the environment.
Malhi, author of Everyday Healthy Indian Cookery, said: “Palm oil can be produced in a responsible way that respects the environment and the communities where it’s grown. “Be aware that palm oil has a high saturated fat content which could be harmful to cardiovascular health.
“So olive, rapeseed, sunflower and coconut oils used in moderation can be alternatives to palm oil. Also, when cooking with oil, do try to measure out quantities as opposed to pouring out from the bottle. By measuring, you reduce waste, reduce calories, save money and become a little more sustainable.”
Greenpeace in the UK warned in November that consumers are being misled by the industry’s “100 per cent certified sustainable” labelling scheme pledging to use oil from sustainable sources. It found that the major producers in the scheme were responsible for five years of fires.
All major supermarkets in the UK use the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and rely on it to ensure they do not contribute to forest destruction.
The analysis also reveals that half the products in consumers’ shopping trolleys are linked to nearly 10,000 fire hot spots.
The RSPO said the Greenpeace report “missed the mark” and it used a host of mapping and fire monitoring tools but has said “certification bodies will also be conducting additional independent onground investigations”.
Studies have also suggested that oil palm plantations threaten the quality of drinking water which can lead to increasing concentrations of arsenic.
Neha Simla, an international consultant working on environmental sustainability and conservation across south Asia, believes importing and producing sustainable palm oil is one solution.
She said: “There is always the argument of reducing imports and improving food security, along with an existing view among the industry that the Indian sector is inherently more sustainable than elsewhere given that until now, forest conversion has been avoided when establishing smallholder farms.
“Increasing domestic production is thus seen as having both economic and social benefits, in the short-run and also reducing dependence on more environmentally and socially problematic sources of palm oil.