Palm Oil — [Philip Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:58 pm on 10th December 2018.

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Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:58 pm, 10th December 2018

Thank you, Mr Davies. It is a pleasure to respond to this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Luke Hall on leading this debate on behalf of the 89,802 signatories of e-petition 219758. The Petitions Committee was generous to grant a debate on a petition that did not meet the threshold of 100,000 signatures.

We have heard some good points about the unsustainable trade in palm oil, its links to deforestation, and the associated loss of habitats and species. I want to make it clear that the Government are absolutely committed to taking the action that is needed and to showing the required leadership to support business, Governments and civil society to tackle deforestation and the associated impacts on some of the most iconic species and habitats on Earth.

Between 1990 and 2015, it is estimated that the world’s forest decreased by an area equivalent to 11 times the size of England. It is the tropical forests that are most in decline, predominantly in south-east Asia, Africa and South America. Palm oil development causes less than 0.5% of global deforestation, but in parts of the tropics it can account for as much as half. It is suggested that more than 90% of global industrial-scale oil palm planting is in Malaysia and Indonesia. The increasing global demand for palm oil has led to rising production and rising deforestation rates. We recognise that that demand is unlikely to decrease.

I understand and share the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate about the use of palm oil and the impact of its use on biodiversity—specifically the impacts he mentioned, such as the loss of forest habitat for orangutan populations. Such impacts are well known, but other impacts such as air pollution and greenhouse gas release caused by using fire to clear land, while discussed less regularly, are no less serious.

Despite those impacts, palm oil offers many benefits and is incredibly versatile. It is solid at room temperature so it can be used for spreads; it is resistant to oxidation so it can give products a longer shelf life; and it is odourless and colourless, which gives it a huge range of uses, as has already been said.

Palm oil also has an extremely high yield, which is six to 10 times higher than other vegetable crops. Although it uses just 10% of the area used globally to grow vegetable crops, it produces more than one third of the world’s vegetable oil. That high productivity means that if palm oil were replaced with alternative vegetable oils, it would result in a significant increase in the global area used to grow vegetable oils, with a correspondingly worse effect on biodiversity. For those reasons, I agree with my hon. Friend that a ban is not the answer. Palm oil can be produced in a more sustainable way and the UK is helping to bring about that change.

What are we doing domestically? The UK has been one of the leading importer countries in terms of encouraging the move to the certified sustainable sourcing of palm oil. Since 2011, we have worked with trade associations, non-governmental organisations and others to encourage the switch to the sustainable sourcing of palm oil. During that time, significant improvements have been made.

Hon. Members will be aware of the UK statement on the sustainable production of palm oil, which was signed by trade associations, NGOs and the Government in 2012. It aimed to achieve the 100% sourcing of credibly certified sustainable palm oil. I have been trying to get an accurate figure about where we are on that from my officials. My understanding is that the latest report from the UK roundtable suggests that it has increased from 16% to 75% in 2017. We will continue to report annually on progress.

In response to the concerns of UK companies, the Government have widened our support of industry-led efforts to cover other commodities. Earlier this year, we launched a roundtable on sustainable soya, which reflects the UK’s imported land footprint from that globally traded commodity.

In reality, if we are going to sort the issue out, we will have to work internationally. The UK Government are actively engaging internationally to improve the sustainability of palm oil production. We are a member of the Amsterdam declarations partnership, which aims to eliminate deforestation from agricultural commodity chains with European countries. We support the ambition of a 100% sustainable palm oil supply chain in Europe.

We also support the Tropical Forest Alliance, which is a public-private initiative with more than 140 member organisations that is taking deforestation out of supply chains for palm oil, pulp and paper, beef and soya. It is having a significant impact on enabling the conditions for sustainable palm oil development and the realisation of zero deforestation sourcing and production commitments. In west Africa, the Tropical Forest Alliance’s support has resulted in the engagement of 10 countries in its Africa palm oil initiative, which sets out a framework for the sustainable development of the palm oil industry in the west and central Africa regions that addresses the environment, jobs, rights, gender equality and other core sustainability issues.

The Government’s 25-year environment plan sets out our ambition to support and protect the world’s forests by supporting sustainable agriculture and zero deforestation supply chains, including for palm oil. In line with the commitments set out in the plan, I launched the global resource initiative in October, which is a joint departmental project to tackle the UK’s impact on the global environment. We are working with stakeholders, including the private sector and key NGOs such as the WWF, to create demand-side incentives for sustainable international sourcing at home, while supporting supply-side improvements and better resource governance in trading partner countries.

Through the UK’s Partnerships for Forests programme, we are providing support for sustainable trade in palm oil. A lack of operational standards has been a significant barrier to realising corporate zero deforestation commitments. The support provided through the programme to the high carbon stock approach has helped to define a standard that is supported by industry and civil society. To date, the application of the high carbon stock approach by palm oil companies has resulted in the assessment of more than 2.4 million hectares of land in west Africa and south-east Asia. More than 0.5 million hectares of high carbon stock forest have been identified for conservation. This year, the high carbon stock approach was integrated into the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which will further accelerate its uptake as an industry standard and ensure that the RSPO can certify palm oil to a deforestation-free standard.

The UK is doing more than ever to support the production of sustainable palm oil, but we can always do more and we seek to do more. I reiterate that we take individual action. This weekend, in Katowice, I met the Minister from Indonesia and we discussed this issue, among several others. I was reassured that they are trying their best to make sure that they can honour the commitments that they are signing up to, but none of us underestimates the challenge that they face.

On the other questions, I would be grateful if my hon. Friend and other hon. Members present recognised that we cannot do this singlehandedly. We are acting domestically, but we will continue to press for global and concerted action across all areas to ensure that we are successful. That is why we will continue to support business, other Governments and civil society to develop methods of production that are environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. We will continue to act on that, so we can genuinely do our best to leave the global environment in a better condition for the next generation.