Episode 53 – The Dirty Little Deforestation Secret Hiding in Your Food

March 30, 2012

In Episode 53 of The Wendel Forum (originally aired on March 10, 2012, on 960 KNEW AM radio), show host Dick Lyons visits Natural Products Expo West 2012 in Anaheim.  The show sees 60,000 attendees and more than 2,000 exhibitors showcasing their products including a wide range of natural living products, specialty foods, natural ingredients, supplements, and health and beauty aids.  In addition there are numerous seminars and presentation, as well as informal discussions on topics from fair trade and supply chain issues to organic labeling and greenwashing. 

While attending the Expo, Dick had the opportunity to speak with Sarah Roquemore, Outreach Coordinator with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), on the topic of palm oil, a product that appears in nearly 50% of the food on your grocer’s shelves and in products as diverse as toothpaste and laundry detergent.

Although palm oil is a widely-used product, most people have no idea how prevalent it is in our food stream. Nor do they realize the environmental impact its cultivation has on our planet.  In recent years, the high demand for palm oil has contributed to the deforestation of many tropical regions.  UCS claims that 15% of emissions that cause global warming come from tropical deforestation (more than all cars, planes, trucks and ships combined).  The connection between deforestation and emissions is not obvious. However, trees can be viewed as big carbon storage devices.  They absorb carbon dioxide out of the air as they grow.  When trees are cut down and burned or left to rot, the carbon they have stored is released back into the atmosphere.  In addition, deforestation has destroyed habitat for numerous animals and leads to loss of biodiversity.

Of course balancing the needs of the supply chain, the environment and local economies in (often) poor regions of the world is a challenging proposition.  But there are some bright spots.  Sarah suggests that there is movement on multiple fronts to address this problem, including promoting changes to the way we grow and produce vegetable oil, local jurisdictional controls on farming practices, and consumer campaigns that have changed the practices of companies who use the oil.

A relatively recent example of a successful consumer-driven corporate shift on palm oil sourcing happened in 2010 with Nestlé.  After being targeted for their use of palm oil from sources of deforestation in a public campaign, led largely by Greenpeace, Nestle has adopted Responsible Sourcing Guidelines. The company has committed to “ensuring that its products do not have a deforestation footprint,” according to its website.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is another growing resource in the fight to produce palm oil in a more responsible way. This group actively looks to improve the sourcing options, simplify the distribution channels and verify the supply chain for palm oil.  But it’s a complex problem, and some feel that the group has not gone far enough in establishing guidelines and certifications. 

In the meantime, the Union of Concerned Scientists will continue their program to publicize the issue, taking knowledge to product manufacturers and the public. 

Post Links:

Listen to the interview with Sarah Roquemore:  Episode 53 of The Wendel Forum(27:53 mins; mp3)

UCS Report “Recipes for Success: Solutions for Deforestation-Free Vegetable Oils”: http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/solutions/forest_solutions/deforestation-free-vegetable-oils.html

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil website: http://www.rspo.org/

Greenpeace follow up story on Nestle campaign (dated 5/23/2011): http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/features/One-year-after-Nestle-committed-to-giving-rainforests-a-break–what-has-been-achieved/

Nestlé Responsible Souring Guidelines: http://www.nestle.com/Common/NestleDocuments/Documents/Media/Statements/2011-Nestle_Responsible_Sourcing_Guidelines.pdf 

Natural Products Expo West 2012 website: http://www.expowest.com/ew12/public/enter.aspx

960 KNEW AM Radio website: http://www.960KNEW.com

Dick Lyons’ online profile: http://www.wendel.com/rlyons

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