Palm Oil — [Philip Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:51 pm on 10th December 2018.

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Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Shadow Minister (Waste and Recycling) 4:51 pm, 10th December 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate Luke Hall on his excellent speech. I agreed with much that was said by John Mc Nally. I welcome the debate engendered by this e-petition, and congratulate its proposers and everyone who signed it.

We have heard plenty of evidence that the amount of palm oil being produced is increasing, the amount of land used for its production is increasing, the amount of deforestation taking place in order to make that land available is increasing, and the environmental, biodiversity and health effects of that deforestation are increasing. If we care about having an area of rainforest the size of a football pitch cleared every 25 seconds in Indonesia alone; if we are at all troubled by the race to extinction of the orangutan and a whole host of other creatures, some of which are probably yet to be identified; if we are sickened by the bullying, intimidation and violence that are driving inhabitants off their land, and poisoning their water and their air, we must first ask ourselves what we can do differently.

Whatever regimes and arrangements are currently in place to attempt to ensure that palm oil comes only from sustainable sources, and whatever the various reports from various bodies might say, the evidence is there in plain sight that the depredation on the world’s rainforests continues. We can all be delighted that in 2012, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs pledged to work towards 100% UK sourcing of credibly certified, sustainable palm oil by the end of 2015. However, while the Government’s response to this e-petition claims that “substantial progress” has been made—there is a fairly impressive list of declarations signed and commodity user groups set up—I do not think that the Minister will try to claim that all the palm oil used in all the products consumed in the UK is currently sourced from genuinely sustainable palm oil plantations.

Palm oil is by far the most prevalent form of oil in processed foods in this country. Many people and organisations would like to campaign for a total ban on all palm oil in this country. Those of us who have had the opportunity to watch the advert promoted by Iceland as part of its decision to rule out palm oil would feel moved to agree as an initial reaction, but under the present circumstances it would not be feasible to halt the production and use of all palm oil, at least in the short term. There does not appear to be conclusive evidence that palm oil cultivation is inherently more damaging to the environment than any other crop. Serious, in-depth analysis of the total sustainability of various cultivation regimes, in order to identify which practices in the cultivation of palm oil are more damaging than others, would help to achieve more sustainable international agriculture.

It is certainly not the case that deforestation is the only reason why palm oil might have an unacceptable effect on the environment. I am certain that those who are campaigning against all use of palm oil will not be satisfied with any so-called sustainable palm oil accreditation that is not based on scientific and objective measurement of all the possible detriments that palm oil cultivation might involve.

The current definition of sustainable palm oil is based on the standards and criteria laid down by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. That body has over 400 members, the majority of which are from the palm oil industry—businesses involved in the import of palm oil or businesses involved in the sale of products that contain palm oil—as well as banks and other organisations that are investors in the palm oil industry. So far as I can tell, of the 400 members, only five have no vested interest in the continuation of the palm oil industry. I am not suggesting that the roundtable is not genuine in its concerns about the environment or that its definition of sustainability is not motivated by a deep concern for the environment, human rights or the biodiversity of our planet, but I am certain that some considerations have not been made, because those organisations that would have been able to consider them, including scientific bodies that monitor environmental detriment, have not been involved. However genuine the concerns of the RSPO might be, environmental campaigners who are opposed to the use of palm oil will not believe any definition of sustainability that emanates from such a body.

I have a few questions for the Minister. What more have the Government done to try to reach the 100% goal, which was laid down by DEFRA to be achieved by 2015? What plans does her Department have to reform the RSPO or to set up an additional body to produce a definition of sustainable palm oil that might command the respect of campaigners and the general public? How can her Department ensure that an effective, independently-led and scientific audit trail is done of the current sources of palm oil consumed in this country, rather than relying on the assurances of those who have a vested interest in giving assurances? Will her Department investigate the effectiveness of other nations’ adherence to their promises, so that we can determine where the responsibility for the continuing destruction of our rainforests lies?

The Government say that they wish to halt deforestation by 2030. The world is not even going in the right direction. Following the current trend, if deforestation does halt in 2030, it will be because there are no forests left to deforest.