Poor palmed off by a load of old monkeys
In a choice between the life of a cute, fuzzy orang-utan and tighter food labelling regulations, who’d be surprised if the orang-utan won?
It’s what Melbourne Zoo is betting on in their campaign to have Food Standards Australia New Zealand regulate palm oil to be labelled as a separate ingredient on groceries.
Melbourne Zoo’s campaign is predicated on concerns that the developing country farmers aren’t doing enough to stop deforestation and the loss of habitat for orang-utans in their quest to keep themselves above the poverty line. And the solution is a misguided campaign to stop Aussies and Kiwis buying palm oil.
But a win for those cute, baby orang-utans is a loss for cute, baby rural Indonesians and Malaysians whose families rely on palm oil for their livelihoods.
Deforestation occurs because poor rural communities want to lift themselves out of poverty, and the best way they know how is to grow agriculture commodities that people want to buy.
Palm oil is grown in developing countries for the same reason that most farmers grow agriculture commodities – it is profitable. And in the case of palm oil it’s conveniently in demand domestically and for export because it’s used in many household food items that require oil ingredients.
Less palm oil consumed in developed countries means that either other crops will be grown in their place, or developing markets will be flooded with cheap oil. And since one million of the world’s poor die from Vitamin A deficiencies, and palm oil is Vitamin A rich, demand isn’t likely to drop.
Its economic importance is underlined with more than one million Indonesians and Malaysians dependent on the industry for their livelihood. And from the total area of palm oil grown 40 per cent is gown by smallholders in Malaysia, and reaches 45 per cent in Indonesia.
The irony is that palm oil actually limits environmental degradation because it has a four-fold yield potential from other oil seeds. If farmers switched they’d need more resources to produce less.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but the best way to improve the environment in poor countries isn’t to stop them developing, it is to help them prosper. All over the world the evidence shows that as societies become richer they’re more concerned about, and can afford, to protect their environment.
But so long as poor palm oil growers are worrying about where their next meal is coming from, concerns about the environment are likely to come second.
It’s a decision that looms much larger than that of armchair environmentalists who are concerned that they can’t tell whether palm oil is an ingredient in their potato chips.
- Tim Wilson is Director of the IPA and Free Trade Unit at the Institute of Public Affairs and author of Palming off livelihoods?: The misguided campaign against palm oil.
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