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Palm Oil

Volume 651: debated on Monday 10 December 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 219758 relating to the sale of products containing palm oil.

I was hoping for and expecting a bigger turnout for the debate, because a lot colleagues mentioned to me how passionate they were about the subject. However, I think other events may have overtaken us. Also, I beg forgiveness: my voice has only just returned, so I may have to cut my remarks short to ensure that it lasts the whole three hours of the debate.

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree. It can be found in a range of household products, from foods such as pizza and chocolate, to cosmetic products, including leading brands of shampoos and lipsticks. In recent decades, global demand for products containing palm oil has increased substantially. The World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that palm oil is present in as many as 50% of packaged products purchased in the UK each week.

The debate is taking place in response to a petition calling for a ban on the sale of products in the UK containing unsustainably sourced palm oil. It was created by Jessica Wilkinson after she watched the BBC documentary series “Orangutan Diary”, which was first broadcast back in 2007. Support for the petition skyrocketed after an Iceland advert detailing the effects of the palm oil industry on orangutans became a viral sensation online. It went from just a few thousand signatures to almost 100,000 in just a few days. Iceland’s initial tweet presenting the video received more than 92,000 retweets and 100,000 likes, and the advert has been viewed 5.6 million times on Iceland’s YouTube channel.

Clearcast, the body responsible for clearing adverts on behalf of the four major commercial broadcasters, ruled that the advert was not suitable to air. That actually helped bring attention to this cause, because the advert was viewed millions more times than it would have been had it not been banned. I thank Clearcast for bringing attention to the debate, which I will use to highlight a number of issues about the impact of the palm oil industry on biodiversity, the wider environment and human life in affected areas, and what we legislators can do to improve the situation.

On animals, oil palm trees can be cultivated only in tropical climates; consequently, rain forest environments across regions of Asia have become prime locations for palm oil production. Areas of Latin America and west Africa also contribute to global production, with Indonesia and Malaysia in particular becoming the world’s main exporting countries; they alone account for as much as 90% of the world’s oil palm trees. These areas are some of the most species-rich habitats on the planet, and the implications of palm oil production for animals there are devastating. The jungles of Borneo and Sumatra are home to thousands of unique animal species, and are the only place on earth where certain species of tigers, rhinoceroses and pygmy elephants can be found.

The orangutan has suffered the greatest impact. A 2015 United Nations Environment Programme report said that Bornean orangutans face extinction due to the unsustainable rates of deforestation across the island, while the International Union for Conservation of Nature now describes orangutans as critically endangered. A scientific study published in Current Biology indicated that in the past 16 years, more than 100,000 of these beautiful creatures—more than half their overall number—have died as a direct result of deforestation due to palm oil. Many other species are also affected by these developments, including the sun bear and the clouded leopard.

On the environment, deforestation for the purpose of planting oil palm trees has substantial implications for the future of climate change. In Indonesia and Malaysia alone, the area of forest cultivated for growing oil palm trees and palm oil production has increased from 2.6 million hectares in 1990 to more than 15 million hectares in 2014. One of the most direct consequences of that is the damage done to the environment through the increased emission of greenhouse gases. The general consensus, arrived at on the basis of scientific evidence and fact, is that tropical forests account for the storage of approximately 46% of all terrestrial carbon on earth.

Consideration must be given to the environmental impact of the production process, and the emissions associated with plantation management and mill operations. One of the most effective methods of deforestation of the tropical jungle is burning down trees and replacing them with oil palm plantations. Equatorial Asia alone accounts for more than 10% of all global emissions caused by burning vegetation.

That brings me neatly on to the effect on people. Those fires have severe consequences for human life; air pollution is a major problem across the region. In 1997 alone, hospitals in Singapore recorded an increase of as much as 30% in hospital admissions for haze-related conditions. Haze events occur as a direct consequence of extensive forest fires. In 2015, Malaysia and Singapore experienced the longest haze event on record, which lasted as long as three months. A 2017 European Commission study estimated that those countries may have experienced more than 100,000 excess deaths in 2015 alone, as a direct consequence of that event.

Secondly on the industry’s effect on people, there has been a rising number of disputes over land ownership. Several cases have been reported of large palm oil producing companies being given preferential access to areas of land over indigenous populations, who have been displaced despite their long-standing generational and cultural ties to the area. That has been a global issue, with cases documented in Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Cambodia, the Philippines, Nigeria, Liberia, Cameroon and Colombia, and specifically Indonesia; its national land bureau estimates that disputes relating to the palm oil industry in 2012 alone accounted for as many as half of the country’s land conflicts.

Finally, the industry, while providing employment for many people and being a huge part of local economies, has been connected with alleged exploitation of child and forced labour for the purpose of profiteering. The United States Department of Labour lists palm oil produced in Malaysia as a product of forced labour; in Malaysia, Indonesia and Sierra Leone, the industry also exploits child labour.

As legislators, we need to ask what our response to this issue should be. It is important to remember that criticism of industry in and of itself is not universal. It is a vital component of the economies of those countries, and the livelihoods of many people are supported and maintained by the production and export of palm oil and associated goods. Academics and anthropologists have suggested that a total ban on all products containing palm oil, such as the one implemented by supermarket chain Iceland, may in fact be detrimental to addressing the damage that unsustainable palm oil production causes. They argue:

“Environmentally conscious consumers should demand palm oil from certified sources, but avoiding it altogether runs the risk of putting pressure on other crops that are equally to blame for the world’s environmental problems.”

In fact, Greenpeace has argued that it is not opposed to palm oil in and of itself. The solution has to be to look at how, specifically, we can reduce the impacts of deforestation, and consequently support more sustainable approaches.

WWF has been in discussions with me about the recommendations that it has put forward: first, to work with the private sector to address the deforestation risks in its global supply chains—the Government should consider demanding high environmental standards in any future trade deals with countries across the world that are harvesting palm oil—and, secondly, to bring forward an environment Bill that sets out a strong legal basis for the recovery of our environment and the reduction of our global impacts.

I have described the impact that unsustainable palm oil has on animals, the environment and people, and how legislators and the Government could proceed. It is clear that greater global effort must be made to end the practice of producing unsustainable palm oil, so I would like to put some points and questions to my hon. Friend the Minister before I conclude. First, although the Government have made considerable progress in relation to ensuring 100% sourcing of credibly certified palm oil, there is still progress to be made. That is despite the excellent work that the Minister has been doing, so can she outline when the 100% threshold is likely to be met? Secondly, what steps are the Government taking to build on the work of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and encourage those nations to address the issues associated with unsustainable palm oil through international aid, diplomatic measures and other tools that Governments have at their disposal? Thirdly, how are this Government highlighting the commitments of countries to create reductions in greenhouse gas emissions under the 2015 Paris climate change agreement, and highlighting how that can be achieved in short order?

I say to the Minister that there is support for the Government taking action to ensure that this vital industry is sustainable for the long term, and to protect animals, the environment and the people around the world who rely on it. We will never be forgiven if we allow the extinction of more species on our watch. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what more the Government can do.

It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I express many and sincere thanks to the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) for securing this debate on the sale of products containing palm oil, and congratulate him on getting through his speech.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution to such an important discussion. He has much more in-depth knowledge than me, although I am glad to have this opportunity to speak on an issue that is becoming more and more apparent in everyday life. What comes over loud and clear is that, for the planet’s sake, we must say no to palm oil. At a time when it is more important than ever to protect our environment, we have a widely used substance that is directly linked to catastrophic deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty and indigenous rights abuses in the countries in which it is harvested.

As a highly versatile conditioning agent, palm oil is the world’s most commonly used vegetable oil and roughly half of all packaged products in our supermarkets contain it, yet most people will have little idea of how it is produced. I believe that palm oil could be described as “the new plastic”, because of the damage that its production and everyday use do to the environment. Phasing it out will be a victory in the fight to save our rainforests and to protect wildlife—in particular, orang-utans and Sumatran tigers, both of which are endangered species. It is estimated that there are only about 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild. Both those wonderful species are put at needless risk through the production of palm oil.

The production of this substance epitomises all the worst things that humans are doing to the planet, and I hope that we are beginning to take notice. I applaud the frozen food retailer Iceland for its stance: it is committed to phasing out palm oil from 130 of its own-brand products until such time as there is a reliable global certification scheme that prevents deforestation. What struck me about this issue is the need to raise public awareness of it. That is why high-profile campaigns such as Iceland’s are crucial. It encouraged people to sign a petition on the use of palm oil. This petition was a worthy one to sign, as we can all see from the amounts of correspondence that we have had from our constituents.

As consumers, we can help to stop palm oil expansion by sourcing products that do not contain this substance and we must continue to put pressure on the companies that use it. Research by YouGov in March 2017 found that although 77% of respondents had heard of palm oil, there was a huge lack of clarity among the majority of people on whether it was being produced sustainably. Although palm oil may be all around us in everyday products, consumer awareness of its impact on the environment is scarce.

Some digital tools are being produced to allow shoppers to avoid palm oil or choose brands that use oil from certified sources—a huge step in the right direction. One example is the World Wildlife Fund palm oil buyers scorecard. On the awareness front, we can only applaud a company such as Iceland for its pledge to ban products with palm oil from its stores, but we need more big brands and suppliers to follow its lead. Last week, I met representatives of Waitrose at Westminster and I brought up the subject of palm oil in its products. Although it is doing everything it can to produce a reliable supply chain and it is making strides, it still has concerns about where it sources its goods from. Additional good news is that the Norwegian Parliament has voted to make Norway the world’s first country to ban its biofuel industry from importing this substance, starting in 2020. Green campaigners have celebrated that move as a victory but, as the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate said, there is still much more to do. We are at a pivotal moment and we must strike now.

Thanks to respected environmentalists such as David Attenborough—I hope we find another one very quickly—there is a willingness to take conservation very seriously. As we have touched on today, palm oil is a vegetable oil extracted from the fruit of oil palms and used in everything from food to cleaning products and fuel. By the way, I do not mean that there is anything wrong with David Attenborough; I just think that we need more people out there. He is doing an awful lot of work on his own and I think that he needs the support of many other people. I know that, on the ground, there are people coming through. I think that we need to promote them more and more, to get the message out.

The oil palm is mostly grown in Africa, Asia and North and South America. Thank goodness that in January 2018 the European Commission decided that the use of palm oil in biodiesel was to be phased out and banned as of 2021. Indonesia and Malaysia have voiced great displeasure, as this has been a huge market for them. They are the largest and second largest producers in the world respectively, producing 85% of the world’s palm oil, and the EU is one of the world’s largest importers. As of 2018, half the EU’s palm oil imports were being used for biodiesel. Such has been the outcry that the Malay Government lobbied the UK Government to oppose the ban, threatening to withdraw arms orders from UK companies. I think that I am right in saying that since the ban was announced, the UK has been lobbying for a planned EU-Indonesia trade deal. Perhaps the Minister can comment on that later.

Meanwhile, companies such as Unilever, the world’s largest palm oil buyer, use it for pharmaceuticals, chemicals, animal feed and processed foods and ingredients. It is looking into a sustainable palm oil strategy for its entire supply chain, which of course is good news. It plans to source all its raw palm oil from sources that meet RSPO certification standards, or standards that have been verified as equivalent by an independent third party, by 2019. That is crucial; it must be done by more companies and done in a hurry.

Cargill is, I believe, a company that uses palm oil in animal feed and processed food ingredients. It is an early member of the RSPO and implements a full supply chain sustainability plan with the help of The Forest Trust. Meanwhile, Fairtrade palm oil production has begun. There is a non-profit collaboration between stakeholders from the palm oil industry, and environmental and social non-governmental organisations, to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil.

While it is good that the palm oil problem is being looked at and ways forward discussed, we must ensure that there is no room for companies to find a way around green safeguards. The RSPO certification scheme has been criticised for its loopholes. For example, forest areas can still be cleared so long as they are not designated “high conservation value forest,” but the definition is far too vague and subject to interpretation. Companies can also buy sustainability credits, which let producers of unsustainably produced oil sell it as sustainable if they contribute towards an agricultural training fund. About 21% of the world’s production was covered by this arrangement in 2017. In addition, the EU is the only market where certified oil has been in high demand. Most of the oil produced is consumed in Asia.

Other hurdles include the risk that focusing on palm oil alone will only drive manufacturers to use other edible oil sources that are just as bad. Like the EU biomass ban, it could also send a message to producers that there is no point in adopting sustainable practices. This is a complex situation and difficult conversation, but we must face up to it. It urgently needs our attention and a solid plan to combat the assault on our planet. It must be brought to public attention that everyday choices made while shopping have a much wider impact. The message to producers must be that the mass use of palm oil cannot continue as at present, and a greener way must be found for the good of us all and future generations.

The world wants to change. More young people than ever are engaged in green issues, but we, the decision makers in this place, need to continue to raise awareness and make demands. We must never assume that big companies will adhere to doing the right thing. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) on his excellent speech. I agreed with much that was said by the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally). I welcome the debate engendered by this e-petition, and congratulate its proposers and everyone who signed it.

We have heard plenty of evidence that the amount of palm oil being produced is increasing, the amount of land used for its production is increasing, the amount of deforestation taking place in order to make that land available is increasing, and the environmental, biodiversity and health effects of that deforestation are increasing. If we care about having an area of rainforest the size of a football pitch cleared every 25 seconds in Indonesia alone; if we are at all troubled by the race to extinction of the orangutan and a whole host of other creatures, some of which are probably yet to be identified; if we are sickened by the bullying, intimidation and violence that are driving inhabitants off their land, and poisoning their water and their air, we must first ask ourselves what we can do differently.

Whatever regimes and arrangements are currently in place to attempt to ensure that palm oil comes only from sustainable sources, and whatever the various reports from various bodies might say, the evidence is there in plain sight that the depredation on the world’s rainforests continues. We can all be delighted that in 2012, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs pledged to work towards 100% UK sourcing of credibly certified, sustainable palm oil by the end of 2015. However, while the Government’s response to this e-petition claims that “substantial progress” has been made—there is a fairly impressive list of declarations signed and commodity user groups set up—I do not think that the Minister will try to claim that all the palm oil used in all the products consumed in the UK is currently sourced from genuinely sustainable palm oil plantations.

Palm oil is by far the most prevalent form of oil in processed foods in this country. Many people and organisations would like to campaign for a total ban on all palm oil in this country. Those of us who have had the opportunity to watch the advert promoted by Iceland as part of its decision to rule out palm oil would feel moved to agree as an initial reaction, but under the present circumstances it would not be feasible to halt the production and use of all palm oil, at least in the short term. There does not appear to be conclusive evidence that palm oil cultivation is inherently more damaging to the environment than any other crop. Serious, in-depth analysis of the total sustainability of various cultivation regimes, in order to identify which practices in the cultivation of palm oil are more damaging than others, would help to achieve more sustainable international agriculture.

It is certainly not the case that deforestation is the only reason why palm oil might have an unacceptable effect on the environment. I am certain that those who are campaigning against all use of palm oil will not be satisfied with any so-called sustainable palm oil accreditation that is not based on scientific and objective measurement of all the possible detriments that palm oil cultivation might involve.

The current definition of sustainable palm oil is based on the standards and criteria laid down by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. That body has over 400 members, the majority of which are from the palm oil industry—businesses involved in the import of palm oil or businesses involved in the sale of products that contain palm oil—as well as banks and other organisations that are investors in the palm oil industry. So far as I can tell, of the 400 members, only five have no vested interest in the continuation of the palm oil industry. I am not suggesting that the roundtable is not genuine in its concerns about the environment or that its definition of sustainability is not motivated by a deep concern for the environment, human rights or the biodiversity of our planet, but I am certain that some considerations have not been made, because those organisations that would have been able to consider them, including scientific bodies that monitor environmental detriment, have not been involved. However genuine the concerns of the RSPO might be, environmental campaigners who are opposed to the use of palm oil will not believe any definition of sustainability that emanates from such a body.

I have a few questions for the Minister. What more have the Government done to try to reach the 100% goal, which was laid down by DEFRA to be achieved by 2015? What plans does her Department have to reform the RSPO or to set up an additional body to produce a definition of sustainable palm oil that might command the respect of campaigners and the general public? How can her Department ensure that an effective, independently-led and scientific audit trail is done of the current sources of palm oil consumed in this country, rather than relying on the assurances of those who have a vested interest in giving assurances? Will her Department investigate the effectiveness of other nations’ adherence to their promises, so that we can determine where the responsibility for the continuing destruction of our rainforests lies?

The Government say that they wish to halt deforestation by 2030. The world is not even going in the right direction. Following the current trend, if deforestation does halt in 2030, it will be because there are no forests left to deforest.

Thank you, Mr Davies. It is a pleasure to respond to this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) on leading this debate on behalf of the 89,802 signatories of e-petition 219758. The Petitions Committee was generous to grant a debate on a petition that did not meet the threshold of 100,000 signatures.

We have heard some good points about the unsustainable trade in palm oil, its links to deforestation, and the associated loss of habitats and species. I want to make it clear that the Government are absolutely committed to taking the action that is needed and to showing the required leadership to support business, Governments and civil society to tackle deforestation and the associated impacts on some of the most iconic species and habitats on Earth.

Between 1990 and 2015, it is estimated that the world’s forest decreased by an area equivalent to 11 times the size of England. It is the tropical forests that are most in decline, predominantly in south-east Asia, Africa and South America. Palm oil development causes less than 0.5% of global deforestation, but in parts of the tropics it can account for as much as half. It is suggested that more than 90% of global industrial-scale oil palm planting is in Malaysia and Indonesia. The increasing global demand for palm oil has led to rising production and rising deforestation rates. We recognise that that demand is unlikely to decrease.

I understand and share the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate about the use of palm oil and the impact of its use on biodiversity—specifically the impacts he mentioned, such as the loss of forest habitat for orangutan populations. Such impacts are well known, but other impacts such as air pollution and greenhouse gas release caused by using fire to clear land, while discussed less regularly, are no less serious.

Despite those impacts, palm oil offers many benefits and is incredibly versatile. It is solid at room temperature so it can be used for spreads; it is resistant to oxidation so it can give products a longer shelf life; and it is odourless and colourless, which gives it a huge range of uses, as has already been said.

Palm oil also has an extremely high yield, which is six to 10 times higher than other vegetable crops. Although it uses just 10% of the area used globally to grow vegetable crops, it produces more than one third of the world’s vegetable oil. That high productivity means that if palm oil were replaced with alternative vegetable oils, it would result in a significant increase in the global area used to grow vegetable oils, with a correspondingly worse effect on biodiversity. For those reasons, I agree with my hon. Friend that a ban is not the answer. Palm oil can be produced in a more sustainable way and the UK is helping to bring about that change.

What are we doing domestically? The UK has been one of the leading importer countries in terms of encouraging the move to the certified sustainable sourcing of palm oil. Since 2011, we have worked with trade associations, non-governmental organisations and others to encourage the switch to the sustainable sourcing of palm oil. During that time, significant improvements have been made.

Hon. Members will be aware of the UK statement on the sustainable production of palm oil, which was signed by trade associations, NGOs and the Government in 2012. It aimed to achieve the 100% sourcing of credibly certified sustainable palm oil. I have been trying to get an accurate figure about where we are on that from my officials. My understanding is that the latest report from the UK roundtable suggests that it has increased from 16% to 75% in 2017. We will continue to report annually on progress.

In response to the concerns of UK companies, the Government have widened our support of industry-led efforts to cover other commodities. Earlier this year, we launched a roundtable on sustainable soya, which reflects the UK’s imported land footprint from that globally traded commodity.

In reality, if we are going to sort the issue out, we will have to work internationally. The UK Government are actively engaging internationally to improve the sustainability of palm oil production. We are a member of the Amsterdam declarations partnership, which aims to eliminate deforestation from agricultural commodity chains with European countries. We support the ambition of a 100% sustainable palm oil supply chain in Europe.

We also support the Tropical Forest Alliance, which is a public-private initiative with more than 140 member organisations that is taking deforestation out of supply chains for palm oil, pulp and paper, beef and soya. It is having a significant impact on enabling the conditions for sustainable palm oil development and the realisation of zero deforestation sourcing and production commitments. In west Africa, the Tropical Forest Alliance’s support has resulted in the engagement of 10 countries in its Africa palm oil initiative, which sets out a framework for the sustainable development of the palm oil industry in the west and central Africa regions that addresses the environment, jobs, rights, gender equality and other core sustainability issues.

The Government’s 25-year environment plan sets out our ambition to support and protect the world’s forests by supporting sustainable agriculture and zero deforestation supply chains, including for palm oil. In line with the commitments set out in the plan, I launched the global resource initiative in October, which is a joint departmental project to tackle the UK’s impact on the global environment. We are working with stakeholders, including the private sector and key NGOs such as the WWF, to create demand-side incentives for sustainable international sourcing at home, while supporting supply-side improvements and better resource governance in trading partner countries.

Through the UK’s Partnerships for Forests programme, we are providing support for sustainable trade in palm oil. A lack of operational standards has been a significant barrier to realising corporate zero deforestation commitments. The support provided through the programme to the high carbon stock approach has helped to define a standard that is supported by industry and civil society. To date, the application of the high carbon stock approach by palm oil companies has resulted in the assessment of more than 2.4 million hectares of land in west Africa and south-east Asia. More than 0.5 million hectares of high carbon stock forest have been identified for conservation. This year, the high carbon stock approach was integrated into the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which will further accelerate its uptake as an industry standard and ensure that the RSPO can certify palm oil to a deforestation-free standard.

The UK is doing more than ever to support the production of sustainable palm oil, but we can always do more and we seek to do more. I reiterate that we take individual action. This weekend, in Katowice, I met the Minister from Indonesia and we discussed this issue, among several others. I was reassured that they are trying their best to make sure that they can honour the commitments that they are signing up to, but none of us underestimates the challenge that they face.

On the other questions, I would be grateful if my hon. Friend and other hon. Members present recognised that we cannot do this singlehandedly. We are acting domestically, but we will continue to press for global and concerted action across all areas to ensure that we are successful. That is why we will continue to support business, other Governments and civil society to develop methods of production that are environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. We will continue to act on that, so we can genuinely do our best to leave the global environment in a better condition for the next generation.

I think there is genuinely a bigger passion for this subject than the turn-out for the debate suggests, but I am delighted to have the opportunity to wind up in front of all three Front-Bench speakers.

We recognise that the Government cannot tackle the issue singlehandedly. The work of the Government and the Minister to encourage those relationships around the world, and to encourage other Governments to take action on the issue, is widely appreciated. It is reassuring to hear that the Minister was speaking to Indonesian Ministers and counterparts as recently as this week. I look forward to working with her and supporting the Government on the issue in the months and years ahead. I thank her for her work and for her answers.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petition 219758 relating to the sale of products containing palm oil.

Sitting adjourned.