Clearing for soy in the Brazilian Amazon
Surging demand for vegetable oil has emerged as an important driver of tropical deforestation over the past two decades and is threatening biodiversity, carbon stocks, and other ecosystem functions in some of the world’s most critical forest areas, warns a report published last week by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
But the report, titled Recipes for Success: Solutions for Deforestation-Free Vegetable Oils, sees some reason for optimism, including emerging leadership from some producers, rising demand for “greener” products from buyers, new government policies to monitor deforestation and shift cropland expansion to non-forest area, and partnerships between civil society and key private sector players to improve the sustainability of vegetable oil production.
“It’s important for consumers to insist that companies ensure the products they sell are deforestation-free,” said report co-author Calen May-Tobin, a policy analyst with UCS’s Tropical Forests and Climate Initiative, in a statement. “If leading companies commit to using deforestation-free vegetable oil in their products, others will follow suit, curbing the rate of deforestation and climate change.”
Vegetable oil demand has grown by more than five percent annually over the past decade due to rising affluence and population. To meet increased demand, large swathes of land have been converted for rapeseed (canola), oil palm, sugar cane, maize (corn), and soy. Some of the area has included carbon-dense rainforest in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia, a development that has alarmed environmentalists, scientists, and people who rely on forests for subsistence.
But concern over the impact of oilseed expansion has begun to spur reform. Targeted campaigns by environmental groups have led some buyers to demand that palm oil, soy, and other oilseeds be produced at a lower cost to the environment. For example, a high-profile investigation by Greenpeace in 2006 led the Brazilian soy industry to implement a moratorium on conversion of rainforests for soybeans. Subsequent Greenpeace reports targeting PT SMART, an Indonesia palm oil giant owned by Sinar Mas and Golden Agri Resources (GAR), caused Unilever and Nestle — major palm oil buyers — to enact strict sourcing policies. These eventually led PT SMART to adopt a progressive policy that limits new oil palm development to lands with less than 35 tons of carbon and requires informed consent on the part of communities that may be affected by new plantations. PT SMART was the first, and remains the only, Indonesian palm oil major to establish such a policy, which effectively mandates deforestation-free palm oil.
While the developments are encouraging for the sake of the environment, hurdles remain. Some companies continue to strongly resist any effort to limit expansion into forests and peatlands. For example in February, GAPKI, the Indonesian palm oil industry association, inaccurately asserted that the United States and the E.U. banned Indonesian palm oil due to greenhouse gas emissions associated with production. GAPKI seems to have made the claim in part to stir up resentment towards efforts to improve the environmental performance of palm oil. Last year some Indonesian palm oil companies successfully lobbied to weaken Indonesia’s moratorium on new forest concessions for plantations.
Still the UCS report provides examples of nascent efforts to encourage oilseed expansion in degraded, non-forest areas, including conversion of invasive alang alang grasslands for oil palm plantations in Indonesia and low productivity cattle pasture for soy in Brazil. Not mentioned in the report, but important, is Brazil’s push to expand oil palm plantations in long ago deforested areas. The government’s biodiesel plan offers economic incentives to producers who follow strict social and environmental standards. The initiative could put pressure on developers who continue to clear forest for new plantations.
Oil palm acreage as a percentage of total forest cover in 2009. Data from FAO and the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler 2005.
Recipes for Success ends on hopeful note, concluding that future demand for vegetable oil can be met without converting critical forest areas.
“Producing deforestation-free cooking oils and other products is absolutely doable. We’ve seen it work in Brazil and we are encouraged by Nestle’s policies,” said May-Tobin in a statement. “But it’s up to businesses and governments to make the commitment and consumers to hold them to it.”
CITATION: Calen May-Tobin et al. Recipes for Success: Solutions for Deforestation-Free Vegetable Oils. Union of Concerned Scientists and Climate Advisers 2012.
(02/07/2012) More companies are reporting on the impact of their operations on global forests, finds a new report. Eighty-seven global corporations disclosed their “forest footprint” in 2011, according to the third Forest Footprint Disclosure (FFD), which asks companies to report on their impact on forests based on their use of five commodities: soy, palm oil, timber and pulp, cattle, and biofuels. This is a 11 percent rise from the companies that reported in 2010, including the first reports by companies such as the Walt Disney Company, Tesco UK, and Johnson & Johnson. However a number of so-called “green” companies continue to refuse to disclose, including Patagonia, Stonyfield Farms, and Whole Foods Markets Inc.
(01/30/2012) Greenhouse gas emissions from palm oil-based biodiesel are the highest among major biofuels when the effects of deforestation and peatlands degradation are considered, according to calculations by the European Commission. The emissions estimates, which haven’t been officially released, have important implications for the biofuels industry in Europe.
(01/27/2012) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruled on Friday that palm oil-based biofuels will not meet the renewable fuels standard due to carbon emissions associated with deforestation.
(01/10/2012) Intensive palm oil production is expanding at the expense of biolologically-rich lowland rainforests in the Peruvian Amazon, reports a study published in Environmental Research Letters. The research indicates that enthusiasm for oil palm — one of the world’s most lucrative crops — is taking a toll on forests outside of Southeast Asia, where the vast majority of palm oil is produced.
(11/30/2011) It has long been known that biofuels release greenhouse gas emissions through land conversion like deforestation. But an innovative new study by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) published in Ecology and Society has computed how long it would take popular biofuel crops to payoff the “carbon debt” of land conversion. While there is no easy answer—it depends on the type of land converted and the productivity of the crop—the study did find that in general soy had the shortest carbon debt, though still decades-long, while palm oil grown on peatland had the longest on average.
(11/08/2011) Biofuels produced from oil palm plantations established on tropical peatlands are a substantial source of greenhouse gas emissions, reports a comprehensive new assessment conducted for the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).
(09/21/2011) To encourage uptake of palm oil that is less damaging to the environment, the European Union (EU) should lift the import duty on palm oil certified under Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), said a Dutch industry group.
(06/14/2011) For years now, environmentalists have become accustomed to associating palm oil with large-scale destruction of rainforests across Malaysia and Indonesia. Campaigners have linked palm oil-containing products like Girl Scout cookies and soap products to smoldering peatlands and dead orangutans. Now with Brazil announcing plans to dramatically scale-up palm oil production in the Amazon, could the same fate befall Earth’s largest rainforest? With this potential there is a frenzy of activity in the Brazilian palm oil sector. Yet there is a conspicuous lack of hand wringing by environmentalists in the Amazon. The reason: done right, oil palm could emerge as a key component in the effort to save the Amazon rainforest. Responsible production there could even force changes in other parts of the world.
(02/09/2011) One of the world’s highest profile and most controversial palm oil companies, Golden Agri-Resources Limited (GAR), has signed an agreement committing it to protect tropical forests and peatlands in Indonesia. The deal—signed with The Forest Trust, an environmental group that works with companies to improve their supply chains—could have significant ramifications for how palm oil is produced in the country, which is the world’s largest producer of palm oil.
(01/26/2011) The commercial shows a typical office setting. A worker sits drearily at a desk, shredding papers and watching minutes tick by on the clock. When his break comes, he takes out a Nestle KitKat bar. As he tears into the package, the viewer, but not the office worker, notices something is amiss—what should be chocolate has been replaced by the dark hairy finger of an orangutan. With the jarring crunch of teeth breaking through bone, the worker bites into the “bar.” Drops of blood fall on the keyboard and run down his face. His officemates stare, horrified. The advertisement cuts to a solitary tree standing amid a deforested landscape. A chainsaw whines. The message: Palm oil—an ingredient in many Nestle products—is killing orangutans by destroying their habitat, the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.
(10/06/2010) The NGO, The Forest Trust (TFT), made international headlines this year after food giant Nestlé chose them to monitor their sustainability efforts. Nestlé’s move followed a Greenpeace campaign that blew-up into a blistering free-for-all on social media sites. For months Nestle was dogged online not just for sourcing palm oil connected to deforestation in Southeast Asia—the focus of Greenpeace’s campaign—but for a litany of perceived social and environmental abuses and Nestlé’s reactions, which veered from draconian to clumsy to stonily silent. The announcement on May 17th that Nestlé was bending to demands to rid its products of deforestation quickly quelled the storm. Behind the scenes, Nestlé and TFT had been meeting for a number of weeks before the partnership was made official. But can TFT ensure consumers that Nestlé is truly moving forward on cutting deforestation from all of its products?
(01/12/2010) Palm oil is one of the world’s most traded and versatile agricultural commodities. It can be used as edible vegetable oil, industrial lubricant, raw material in cosmetic and skincare products and feedstock for biofuel production. Growing global demand for palm oil and the ensuing cropland expansion has been blamed for a wide range of environmental ills, including tropical deforestation, peatland degradation, biodiversity loss and CO2 emissions. In response to these concerns, a group of stakeholders—including activists, investors, producers and retailers—formed the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to develop a certification scheme for palm oil produced through environmentally- and socially-responsible ways. It is widely anticipated that the creation of a premium market for RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) would incentivize palm oil producers to improve their management practices.