Palm Oil — [Philip Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 10th December 2018.

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Photo of Luke Hall Luke Hall Conservative, Thornbury and Yate 4:30 pm, 10th 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.