New Zealand’s contribution to deforestation in the tropical rainforest habitat of orangutans was lessened this week with announcements from Landcorp and Fonterra that they would cease using palm kernel extract as a feed supplement for dairy herds.
An ‘unmask palm oil’ campaign to improve labelling so consumers can make a choice to buy products with palm oil, or not, is also supported by New Zealand’s four biggest zoos. These campaigns urge consumers to buy only certified sustainable palm oil products to help prevent further deforestation as palm fields expand to meet growing demand.
Giving consumers sufficient information to make a considered choice is an important first step, especially since about half the goods sold in supermarkets contain palm oil. And if people knew what was in their food, and its implications in species extirpation, they might be more discerning about what they support with their hard-earned cash. A recent survey seemed to confirm this, with 93 per cent of urban respondents to a recent UMR poll supporting mandatory labelling of palm oil. Generally, there’s widespread support for better clarity and information about palm oil labelling, for more sustainable sources of the resource, and for less use in products.
Advocates say ensuring palm oil is labelled and ethically superior via the ‘Certified Sustainable Palm Oil’ scheme will prevent the destruction of more virgin rainforest. If certified sustainable palm oil is only from existing fields, and attracts a consumer preference and price premium, the argument is this would discourage new palm farms emerging elsewhere.
However, there are some problems with even certified ‘sustainable’ sources. Even if they’re certified now, many, if not all of these plantations were once rain forest, now gone. They’re more sustainable than new plantations on recently deforested land, only by the passage of time – the damage is historical, not current, but the damage is done nonetheless.
There are similar problems with other certification schemes, such as the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) ecolabel programme. In New Zealand, both the hoki and orange roughy fisheries are certified as sustainable, according to MSC standards. But the certification for hoki has been challenged twice and claims that the fishery didn’t deserve its sustainability tick were confirmed. Fish stocks have been pushed to below 20 per cent of pre-fishing quantities at times; undersized fish are caught; seabed trawling damages age-old corals, seamounts and underwater landforms; marine mammals and seabirds are unsustainable, collateral damage.
Similar challenges can be directed at the Forest Stewardship Council certification. Certification in itself is no guarantee of sustainability, especially when it can be bought for a fee. There’s no impartiality, dubious review procedures, unclear definitions of ‘sustainability’, certification applies to even primary forest sourced wood, and there’s an overall emphasis on consumption, not reduction.
Informed consumption requires us to know what we we’re buying, but also to buy and use less, not just to believe what it says on the packet.