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.

Most commented


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    • Jimmy Moore says:

      10:50am | 07/11/09

      ‘All over the world the evidence shows that as societies become richer they’re more concerned about, and can afford, to protect their environment.’

      Would you care to elaborate on this rather bizarre statement? By the time a society becomes ‘richer’ it has no natural environment left in the immediate sense. Realising this, tt attempts to protect the natural environments of other societies, hopefully by not creating demand for a product which destroys those natural environments. Which, if you haven’t worked it out, is what the concern about palm oil is about.

      I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but orangutans are an endangered species. Would you also advocate drug trafficking and prostitution because it’s the ‘best way they know how’ [sic] to lift themselves out of poverty? Or deliberately removing labelling laws for garments so that nobody can choose whether they are supporting sweat shops when buying clothes?

      I don’t see how labelling foods with their ingredients to allow consumers to make informed choices (i.e. to not contribute to the extinguishing of an entire race of beings) is misquided.

      I assume the book is more of the same. Stick to making money rather than trying to think about it please. For those wondering what this guys’s agenda actually is, look up the ‘institute’ from which he hails.

    • Watto says:

      07:37pm | 07/11/09

      Tim, I don’t appreciate being told what information or labelling I choose to expect from food products or the elusive food industry.  Let me introduce you to a new concept in business: The customer is always right. And on social media.

    • stephen says:

      11:01pm | 07/11/09

      If yer wanna know about Capitalism, Sex and monkeys, watch a film called Any Which Way You Can with Clint Eastwood.
      (Actually, I’d recommend this film to about 80 per cent of the respondents to this site.)

    • iansand says:

      08:22am | 08/11/09

      The presence or absence of palm oil in a product may or may not affect my decision to buy.  But why should I be denied the information to make that choice?

    • trj says:

      10:22am | 08/11/09

      Thanks, Tim, great article and good point. Jimmy, the sentence you quote and question seems to me to be fairly self-evident: compare environmental laws and safeguards between developed and developing countries - the norm is developed countries have much more stringent laws. If you or the Melbourne Zoo can suggest alternative ways for the people of Indonesia to start businesses and make money to feed themselves and their money, then let’s hear it - that’s the only way to solve the causes of this.

    • Andrew Goff says:

      08:39pm | 08/11/09

      Maybe if they had less children they wouldn’t starve so efficiently? Perhaps the money spent on the campaign to label products would better be spent on condoms?

    • Boris says:

      11:50pm | 08/11/09

      Provocative. This Punch site isnt half bad, would be nice if it punctured on some right-wing conservative memes too. The prohibition of marijuana for a start.

    • leonora says:

      07:10am | 09/11/09

      We may be missing the point here.  Apart from the fact that palm oil plantations are usually owned by (or contracted to) multinational corporations and not local peasant farmers, there is a health issue.

      Palm oil, as a cheaper ingredient, is found in many food items but it is not a healthy addition to our diet.  Other edible oils are much better and can provide a net health benefit which is not the case with palm oil.

      Some less reputable companies promote cheap palm oil products as “containing xxx% vegetable oil’, which is technically correct but without the implied health benefit.  So perhaps it’s not just baby chimps that we should be thinking about.

    • Grumpy says:

      08:12am | 09/11/09

      If you are so sure you are right, the have the courage of your convictions and tell us which products contain palm oil. Then, if you choose, tell us all the reasons why we shouldn’t be concerned about buying it and let consumers make a choice.

      Why do we keep seeing Governments and lobbyists deciding that consumers don’t need this information or that?

      Armed with the information Melbourne Zoo is asking for (I was there on Sunday, excellent zoo btw), Leonora could avoid palm oil because she thinks it is unhealthy, surely that is her right? Others could avoid it because they disagree with you as to the best way to help poorer countries develop. Again, their right? You, on the other hand could choose not to avoid it, in fact with the right information you could seek it out if you see fit as is your right.

      As far as I can tell, the only reason to resist informing people of things is if you know how they will react and want to prevent it. How can you argue to sustain that position?

      Of course, there is currently nothing stopping products that don’t contain palm oil from saying so. Does the fact that they don’t mean that they think it wouldn’t make any difference? (if so, no reason for anyone to resist iving information)

    • Liz says:

      09:51am | 09/11/09

      So what’s the actual solution?
      Bit of a cheek a zoo campaigning when despite all they say they are basically animal prisons whre animals are exhibits…just like Victorian times when they used people as well in hospitals.

    • AdamC says:

      11:00am | 09/11/09

      Food labelling laws should be based on settled health and nutritional science rather than the cries of social campaigners. If people were really that interested in palm oil, food manufacturers could always voluntarily disclose that they are ‘Palm Oil Free!’, just like many already point out prominently that their product is organic, GMO-free or ‘Fair Trade’ to exploit the easy social conscience market.

      Does anyone seriously believe that many consumers seeing palm oil near the bottom of the ingredients list would actually change a purchasing decision and, as a result, reduce demand for palm oil? Of course not!

    • Ken says:

      11:43am | 09/11/09

      The problem is not palm oil itself. The problem is that the vast majority of the land used to grow oil palms—including high-conservation value land—has been deforested (often illegally) solely for that reason. In Indonesia oil palm plantations have sprung up even within national parks. See this story:

      Land is often cleared by burning, which leads to what the locals call the “smoke season”, when large parts of Sumatra and Borneo are shrouded in thick smoke for months at a time. About 6 years ago I drove through Riau province on Sumatra’s east coast during the smoke season. As we approached the provincial capital Pekanbaru, the smoke became so thick that visibility was down to less than 200 metres. According to the locals, this smoke persists day and night for months. Imagine what health effects it has on millions of people living in the area? Especially children and the elderly. But apparently in Tim Wilson’s world, smallhold farmers and corrupt corporations seeking to illegally clear land to cultivate oil palms have the right to inflict the smoke season’s misery on millions of their fellow citizens.

      The damage to wildlife and plant life done by this illegal land clearing is immense. Forests that supported rich biodiversity become monocultures where the only plant that grows in profusion is oil palm.

      Labelling palm oil as an ingredient is a start. The next logical step would be a certification system—similar to FSC for wood products—which is a guarantee that the palm oil contained in the product was not sourced from illegally deforested land. Only then will consumers have all the information necessary to make a truly informed choice. Consumers can either choose to use that information or not to, that is their right. But to deny them that choice based on Tim Wilson’s specious reasoning would be foolish.

    • watto says:

      02:39pm | 09/11/09

      @adamc To counter your consumer guesswork - I’d say Tim (and probably some big food companies ) is worried that consumers would change their mind or he would not have written such an insecure, dictatorial piece.

    • Chelle says:

      04:02pm | 10/11/09

      How incredibly short sighted.  And misinformed.

      The issue is that the current method of production is horrendously bad for a large amount of flora and fauna, the environment and the poor of Indonesia and Malaysia (and now that South America is on board, the problem is set to balloon).  And lets not forget about the health issues of actually consuming palm oil.  I’d actually like to NOT increase my chances of heart disease and stroke thanks.

      The palm oil industry had been active in these locations since the 1950’s.  Surely if it was a way of lifting local people out of poverty, it would have done so already.  Yet, the level of poverty remains. 

      The massive corporations that are running the palm oil industry do not care about the poor.  They do not care about the environment.  They do not even care about consumer health.  Their only concern is profit. 

      Improving current production so it is sustainable would be an attainable goal.  Providing it isn’t done by the RSPO.  Encouraging eco tourism is another attainable goal.  There are ways other than ripping down forest, burning everything in sight and whacking up palm oil plantations as far as the eye can see.

    • Heléna says:

      09:47pm | 10/11/09

      far better they switch their resources to enviromentalism and eco-tourism,
      where there are real profits to be made - the scourge of the palm oil industry is desecrating Borneo, good luck to Melbourne Zoo - I hope they are successful


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