Legal structures and operations of corporations, however, are tricky things. Large companies are rarely monolithic entities. This means the brands consumers buy may not actually be produced by the company they think owns that brand, and the company might be producing products under a brand it doesn’t own. For instance, the KitKat brand is owned by Nestlé, but if you bite into a KitKat in the US you’re eating a Hershey’s product, as the brand is licensed to that company but only within the US. Similarly, if you’re buying a Trader Joe’s chili or mac and cheese, chances are you’re actually buying a product made by Amy’s Kitchen or Annie’s, respectively.
Often joint ventures, newly formed companies that are owned by multiple parent companies, are created when a company wants to expand into a new market overseas. For example, PepsiCo has formed a joint venture with Indofood to manufacture and sell PepsiCo brand products in Indonesia.
Such partnerships make the relationship between costumers and companies much more complex. When buying a KitKit in the US which company is the consumer supporting? Which company’s palm oil policy applies? When a company commits to zero deforestation, does that cover all their partnerships and joint ventures, or just their wholly owned operations?
And herein lies the rub with PepsiCo’s new zero deforestation palm oil commitment. In many ways the language of the commitment is quite strong. However, the company’s commitment makes no reference to its joint venture with Indofood. Not only does the commitment fail to mention the joint venture, I can’t find a single reference to it on PepsiCo’s website (though the Indofood website clearly states it). In addition to making consumer products, Indofood is involved in the development of palm oil plantations, and it remains one of the few major palm oil producers that has yet to make a zero deforestation commitment.
So, are PepsiCo brand products sold in Indonesia covered by the commitment? The new palm oil commitment opens by stating “PepsiCo is committed to doing business the right way and to realizing zero deforestation and respect for human rights in all our company-owned and -operated activities and global supply chains.” Having about the same legal knowledge as an average PepsiCo customer, which is to say practically none, the phrase “all our company-owned and –operated activities and global supply chains” seems to me like it should include joint ventures, since the company does technically own part of it. However, a number of NGOs are alleging that this commitment does not cover any joint venture in which PepsiCo has a minority stake. If this is true, it would mean that PepsiCo brand products sold in the world’s fourth most populous country are not covered by any zero deforestation commitment. That is far less than the global commitment PepsiCo is promising its customers.
I have heard it said that buying a company’s products indicates trust in that company. I think that can be true. Certainly we want to buy products from companies we trust. But trust is not given freely, it must be earned. A company earns trust from its consumers not only by making quality products, but by being honest and transparent in its actions. PepsiCo should take heed of the current blowback against Volkswagen. If it is not forthright about the bounds of its palm oil commitment it risks serious damage to its credibility. After all, trust is like a mirror, difficult to build, easy to break.]]>
“Strange,” you say, “don’t we already have wheels?” In fact, aren’t most businesses, consumer groups, and customers pretty firmly in support of these current “wheels?”
“Oh yes,” the business group may reply, “we have heard something about your ‘wheel’, but we think ours represents a square deal for all stakeholders.” Skeptical, you decide to give them the benefit of the doubt, and wait with bated breath for the new “wheel”’s release.
When it finally arrives, it is clear that much work has gone into it. The wheel looks strong, uses state of the art materials, and is beautifully designed. Unfortunately, it also looks like this:
That is somewhat akin to the feeling I got when reading the HCS Science Study: Draft Synthesis Report. As I mentioned in a previous post, the report was sponsored by the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto group of palm oil producers in an attempt to re-define High Carbon Stock Forests (from here on I’ll refer to this report as “the SPOM study”). This step in essence ignores the High Carbon Stock Approach, which was first developed in 2010 and has wide support from businesses, NGOs, and technical experts. In attempting to reinvent the HCS wheel, the SPOM study falls far short of meeting consumer demands.
The most obvious and significant way the SPOM study falls short is in refusing to define “forests” or “deforestation.” Their rationale is that these terms already have a number of definitions. But by skirting the issue of what definition of “forests” they’re using, the study sidesteps the major consumer demand for deforestation-free palm oil. Instead of devising a method to identify forests and plan development of oil palm plantations on non-forest land, as the HCS Approach does, they instead rely solely on calculations of ecosystem carbon content to determine which forests can be sacrificed. This distills the value of ecosystems down to a single variable and ignores all other potential benefits of forests.
The lack of a forest definition becomes problematic at other points in the study as well, since at times “forests” are used as the basis for decision making. For example on pg. 26 the report states that the 70 tC/ha threshold can be adjusted in “heavily forested countries.” How is one able to decide if a country is heavily forested if they have no way of knowing what is or isn’t forest?
Further, the SPOM study allows for much more clearing of land than the HCS Approach. Areas which the HCS Approach refers to as “young regenerating forest” would be available for clearing under the SPOM study.
Another key component of consumer demands is the protection of peatlands. Emissions from peatlands are a big contributor to climate change and a major concern in the palm oil sector. While most peat would be protected under the method laid out by the SPOM study, it does allow for “conversion of small patches (<20 ha) of already cleared and drained peat land that can lead to a lowering of otherwise existing very high emissions from biological oxidation of peat and recurrent fires.” Even small amounts of already drained peat still produce GHG emissions. A recent study by Kim Carlson, my colleague Lael Goodman and I found that emissions from plantations established on peat range between 18-22 tC /ha/ yr. Over a 25-year plantation cycle that would be between 450 and 550 tC/ha emitted. That’s a lot of emissions and WELL above the study’s threshold of 75 t C/ha. From a climate perspective, it would be preferable to rewet the small patches of cleared peatlands.
As companies implement sustainability commitments, transparency is key to maintaining the trust of consumers and watchdog organizations. Unfortunately, the SPOM study leaves a lot of transparency questions unanswered. There is some reference to the need for transparency in the mapping process (pg. 52) but no details of what that should look like. It is not clear what levels of information will be available to the public and in what forms. Further, it is not clear how or if decision-making processes will be transparent. For instance, figure C (pg. 13) lays out the “critical inputs and processes”. However all of the arrows feed into a “black”, or rather red, box from which outcomes are derived. There is no clear mechanism for how decisions get made, who makes them, and how they are reported. Does this decision making power rest with businesses, communities, watchdog groups, governments, or some combination of these?
Lack of transparency is evident in the study itself. This report is a synthesis of a number of consultants’ studies. These underlying studies, however, have not been made available for public review. The Appendices contain a summary of the findings from these studies, but it is not possible to conduct an adequate review of this document without seeing the underlying documentation.
If the SPOM were the only option for companies, many would be stuck on square wheels with no way to move forward. Fortunately, the HCS Approach offers a solution for companies that want to keep up with consumer demands and make progress on the deforestation-free road. Major consumer companies, including Colgate-Palmolive, Dunkin’ Brands, and Nestlé, and traders, representing over half of the palm oil traded globally, including Cargill and Wilmar International, have already agreed to follow the HCS Approach. If the SPOM companies want to be more than specks in a rearview mirror they need to swap out their wheels and get moving.]]>
However, on a recent viewing of the film what caught my attention wasn’t the hoverboards or holograms but a drink that Marty McFly orders at a diner. That drink: Pepsi Perfect. Through the work I’ve done investigating companies’ links between deforestation and palm oil, I’ve learned a lot about PepsiCo’s policies and asked myself how close is the real PepsiCo to being “Pepsi Perfect”?
While we primarily think of PepsiCo as a beverage company, they are also a major snack food producer. Ever eaten Lays potato chips, a Quaker granola bar, or Doritos? All Pepsi products. So if PepsiCo is striving for perfection it has to be more than just a drink, it has to be a corporate philosophy.
The company’s made progress over the past year. Last year in UCS’s palm oil scorecard we gave PepsiCo a 34 out 100 for their palm oil commitment. Since then, the company has released a new Forestry policy and palm oil commitment. These are an improvement over what they had before, but as we and a number of other groups pointed out, the company can still go further.
However, commitments are just the first step. Pepsi Perfect might look great on a label, but it’s what’s inside the bottle that counts. When it comes to palm oil, what counts is how commitments translate into action. And that is where some major concerns about PepsiCo’s commitment crop up.
Looking back at how PepsiCo has implemented its previous commitments give us a good indication of how it will implement its new commitment. In 2011, PepsiCo committed to source 100% RSPO certified oil by 2015 and in 2013 it expanded that commitment to cover 100% physically sourced oil by 2020, Based on the company’s own reporting in 2012-2013 it sourced 20% of its oil from RSPO certified sources; in 2013-2014 that number rose to a whopping 21%. That leaves only one year for the company to figure out how to source the remaining 79% of its oil as RSPO certified. Things get even bleaker when you look at their physical sourcing of oil, which actually went down from 10% to 6% over that same period. And yet the company’s new commitment states that it will source 100% of its oil from deforestation- and peat-free sources (a higher standard than the RSPO) by 2016.
Understandably, NGOs are skeptical that PepsiCo will be able to only source responsible palm oil within the aggressive timeframe the company has laid out. It’s no coincidence that critiques of the company concentrate mainly on the transparency, traceability, and third-party verification aspects of their palm oil sourcing, as well as the lack of comprehensive safeguards to uphold human and workers’ rights and resolve social conflict. It’s these pieces of a commitment that give stakeholders an indication of how a company will be implementing its commitment on the ground. The companies with the strongest commitments, the best records of implementation, and the most cordial relationship with NGOS are those which fully embrace transparency and are open about their progress, even when they stumble.
PepsiCo isn’t the only company to fall short of its sourcing commitment. Our scorecard was full of companies with strong commitments but weak current sourcing practices. What sets PepsiCo apart is the aggressive and defensive public stance it has been taking. This too is far from perfect. Over the past few years we have seen businesses and NGOs working together to figure out ways to stop deforestation. To me “Pepsi Perfect” would be a company that is transparent, cooperative, and investing the resources needed to truly implement solutions. That is a future we can all look forward to, even if it lacks flying cars.]]>
In the past year we have seen a wave of companies adopt deforestation-free commitments. This includes household names like General Mills, Hershey’s Chocolates, Kellogg’s, Procter & Gamble, and Colgate-Palmolive as well as three of the largest traders of palm oil, Wilmar International, Cargill, and Golden Agri Resources, which together represent well over half of the global palm oil trade. This week alone saw announcements from Dunkin’ Brands, Krispy Kreme, and ConAgra Foods.
But it was an announcement today from the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto (SPOM, not to be confused with James Bond’s soviet nemesis SMERSH) group that represents perhaps the final hammer blow to the old regime’s destructive way. Earlier this summer I wrote about the SPOM’s efforts to pass off greenwashing as a step forward for the environment. Most egregious was the group’s decision to continue clearing forests as they worked out their own definition of what is and isn’t forest. Well, this week SPOM members Asian Agri, IOI Corporation Berhad, Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad, Musim Mas Group and Sime Darby Plantation, some of the world’s largest palm oil growers, announced that they would immediately stop clearing forest as they wait for their study to be complete. These companies are the last of the old guard, and seeing them embrace deforestation-free is a major victory for our forests and our climate.
There will still be struggles ahead. It took two years from the day the Berlin wall fell until the Soviet Union officially dissolved, and likewise, we have much work ahead to cement these successes. Questions still remain about how companies will implement their agreements and how long the SPOM moratorium will last. There are a few companies along the palm oil supply chain that are still holding out, most noticeably major fast food companies like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Yum! Brands (owners of Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut). But today is a day to don your piano scarf and light up jacket and celebrate:
The oil curtain is falling and someday soon, we’ll have a little bit more freedom from deforestation.]]>
On Tuesdays, you could pick up two dozen, still warm, glazed doughnuts for the price of one, music to a sugar-addicted college student’s ears. I’d easily eat a half dozen on my way home, and invariably make myself sick by the end of the night but I kept going back week in and week out.
And while I can barely manage two doughnuts these days (let alone two dozen), I was still pleased to see two of the country’s largest doughnut chains, Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Brands (who owns both Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins), strengthen their commitments to protecting one the few things I care more about than sweets: tropical forests.
Dunkin’s announcement came in the form of new sourcing guidelines (not yet available online but referenced in a press release), while Krispy Kreme’s came in the form of an update to its FAQ’s, and while both lack some clarity of timelines and scope of implementation, they represent major efforts within the companies to address this issue.
I have written before about the abysmal performance of the fast food sector when it comes to protecting the tropical forests. In UCS’s analysis of companies palm oil use, Donuts, Deodorant, Deforestation, eight out of ten fast companies received a zero score because their commitments were inadequate or, in some cases, non-existent. It’s therefore promising to see two fast food companies taking this issue seriously.
These announcements demonstrate the power that consumers can have to move companies. In our scorecard, the packaged food sector scored the highest in part because those companies have been subject to years of public campaigning.
Nestle is the classic example of this, once viewed as one of the worst actors, the company responded to consumer outcry motivated by a Greenpeace campaign to became the first company to commit to deforestation-free palm oil.
Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’s Brands new commitments can likewise be tied to public pressure. UCS and other groups rallied Dunkin’s customers to voice their concerns at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in May and attended Krispy Kreme’s new store openings in Tennessee, Delaware, and Florida.What we have seen time and again is that when consumers speak, companies listen, and act.
But the fast food sector still has a long way to go. Companies like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Yum Brands! (owner of KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco bell) still have woefully inadequate and outdated policies. For instance, at the time of our scorecard release Burger King still had a policy on its website (since taken down but still available on the UCS website), which hadn’t been updated since 2010 and stating that it wouldn’t purchase palm oil from Sinar Mas, a company that was once environmental enemy number one but has long been at the forefront of implementing deforestation-free palm oil production.
Fast food companies are no stranger to their products driving deforestation. In the 2000’s, McDonald’s was targeted by Greenpeace for its links to soy driven deforestation in Brazil. Burger King was linked to deforestation from beef production as far back as the 1980’s. In both cases the companies took steps to address the issue, so it’s difficult for them to plead ignorance or hardship when it comes to palm oil.
So what can you do as a fellow lover of tropical forests and the occasional fast food indulgence? Tell McDonald’s to go deforestation free!
We all know that fast food isn’t great for our health, but Dunkin’ Brands and Krispy Kreme have demonstrated it doesn’t have to be bad for the health of the planet as well. While there is still a lot of work to be done, I’m taking heart that I can stop in to Krispy Kreme or Dunkin’ Donuts on my way to work with a little less guilt. Now if we could only do something about that McDonald’s by my house…
The “Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto” released earlier this month and signed by major palm oil producing and trading companies like Sime Darby Plantation, IOI Corporation Berhad, Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad, Musim Mas Group, and Asian Agri, seems on its surface to be a major win for forest conservation. However, upon close inspection the text contains enough loopholes and vague language to allow these companies to continue destroying forest while making only modest steps towards change.
The Manifesto claims it will protect High Carbon Stock (HCS) forests, a category of forests meant to recognize and value the importance of secondary forests, but only once they agree on a definition of them. This process is expected to take six to 12 months, and will allow companies to continue clearing while the definition is being worked out. This strikes me as odd since a working definition of HCS has been around for nearly 4 years and has fairly broad support.
The HCS concept was first developed in collaboration with the TFT, Greenpeace, Nestlé and the major palm oil producer Golden Agri Resources (GAR) as part of a 2010 agreement for GAR and Nestlé to end deforestation from their products. This process included consultation with scientists, technical experts, and other stakeholders, and by most accounts was fairly robust. Nevertheless, the Manifesto companies treat HCS as if it’s a concept which they pulled out of thin air and is theirs to control.
Further, the Manifesto seems to indicate that the concept is so undeveloped that it couldn’t possibly be implemented at this point. If HCS can’t be implemented then someone should tell GAR, since it’s been implementing HCS since 2011. Development of the HCS definition and methodology is by no means finished, but a legitimate process is already underway to continue its refinement. The fact that the Manifesto companies are ignoring the longstanding and ongoing process in favor of inventing their own strikes me as an attempt to coopt rather than cooperate.
So, the companies are giving themselves a 12-month grace period to continue deforesting while they work on defining something that has already been defined. But then they’ll stop clearing forests, right? Wrong. Companies have the initial 12 months to develop a timeline for implementation but each company is “free to adopt a reasonable time-frame.” This leaves companies a lot of leeway to continue destroying forests, sets no deadline for ending clearing, and lacks any clear ambition compared to some of the industry leaders. When in late 2013 Wilmar, the world’s largest trader of palm oil, made a commitment to purchase deforestation-free palm oil, it committed to do so immediately and to fully implement its policy by December 2015. Again, the Manifesto provides the illusion of progress while to it allows the continuation of the status quo for an indeterminate amount of time.
Another area where the manifesto falls short is on peat protections. On page one, the signatories commit to no new development on peat. However, in the annex definitions, they allow for possible development of patches less than 20 hectares and areas above 20 hectares “will need to be independently assessed to justify development.” The Manifesto group seems to have a very different definition of “no” than the rest of us.
And as if all of those weren’t enough, the Manifesto seems to contain an escape clause for any company that finds even these modest commitments to be too onerous. The commitment descriptions for each sector includes the clause “The sourcing decisions and plans for implementation of the above, however, shall be unilaterally determined by each [company].”
So, in summary the Manifesto allows clearing of forests while companies develop an HCS definition, ignoring a four-year-old process and definition which has wide support by major companies and NGOs, redefines “no peat clearing” to mean “occasional peat clearing”, does not hold companies to any timeline for implementation, and finally allows companies to interpret and ignore the Manifesto as they see fit. In the end, this looks like just another attempt by the owners of the means of production to maintain the status quo and is one manifesto that is unlikely to spur a revolution in forest conservation.]]>
Unfortunately, while fast food might mean home to me, for the countless plant and animal species that call the rainforest their home and for our global climate, major fast food companies are anything but comforting. That’s because many of their ingredients, including beef and palm oil, are driving deforestation throughout the tropics.
The fast food industry is no stranger to deforestation. I remember in high school back in the 90s hearing about beef in fast food hamburgers destroying the Amazon. While the fast food/beef connection has been publicized for years, it’s only recently that attention has been drawn to these companies’ demand for palm oil and the deforestation it causes. In our report Donuts, Deodorant, Deforestation, UCS was one of the first groups to highlight how little the fast food sector as a whole has done to address palm-driven deforestation. Of the ten companies we scored, only four had palm oil commitments, and of those only two, McDonald’s and Subway, had strong enough policies to receive scores.
Since the release of the scorecard we have seen a wave of companies in the packaged food and personal care sectors release or update their palm oil commitments, but no new commitments from any fast food companies. However, due to pressure from groups like UCS and individual consumers, two companies, McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Brands, seem poised to strengthen their commitments. They just need a little push.
McDonald’s scored a whopping (big mac-ing?) 21 points out of 100, falling well short of what could be considered a “strong commitment.” Since then, McDonald’s released its annual sustainability report, which highlights its commitment that by 2020 100% of its palm oil purchases will be Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified. As I’ve pointed out a number of times on this blog, while RSPO palm oil is better than business as usual, it still leaves a lot of forests and peatlands unprotected. Further, most companies making deforestation-free commitments are pledging to do so by 2015, so McDonald’s commitment isn’t just weak, it’s also five years late. McDonald’s was the target of a Greenpeace campaign a number of years ago about soy-driven deforestation in Brazil, so it is no stranger to the issue of tropical deforestation. But so far the company has seemed reluctant to go beyond the RSPO and address all palm-driven deforestation in their supply chain.
Dunkin’ Donuts has also committed to source 100% RSPO palm by 2020, but its parent company Dunkin’ Brands has no policy to cover its other brand, Baskin-Robbins. Dunkin’ Donuts, further, currently supports a “moratorium on palm expansion in rainforests and peatlands.” While this nominally recognizes the importance of these ecosystems, it makes no permanent commitment to their protection. Dunkin’ Brands leadership is already well aware of the palm oil issue, and they seem poised to release a stronger policy, but that is by no means a sure bet.
Thousands of UCS supporters have already weighed in to let companies like McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Brands know that they expect more out of their favorite brands. Earlier this month, activists held a demonstration outside of the Dunkin’ Brands annual shareholding meeting demanding that it adopt a strong palm purchasing policy. In addition, over a hundred thousand e-mails and letters have been sent to both Dunkin’ and McDonald’s leadership and management. But with McDonald’s annual shareholder meeting taking place May 22 and Dunkin’ higher-ups working on a policy, both companies need to continue to hear from consumers.
So whether you’re grabbing a Dunkin’ donut before your flight, a Big Mac on a long road trip, or just a cup of coffee on the way to work, take a second to send these companies a message letting them know that you do not want a side of forests with your meal.]]>
So, as I delved into the commitments these companies have made to address palm-related deforestation and peatland destruction I was disheartened to see how little some brands I love are doing to address the problem. That research was part of a project to score 30 top consumer companies in the fast food, personal care, and packaged food sectors on their commitments to source deforestation- and peat-free palm oil. The report, which was released this week, shows that while a few companies are leading the way, most have a long way to go to fully address palm-related habitat destruction and climate emissions.
Most of us realize that fast food isn’t great for our health, but I was shocked to see how bad it was for the health of our planet as well. The fast food sector was far and away the worst-scoring of the sectors we evaluated. Only two companies (McDonald’s and Subway) out of ten had palm commitments which were strong enough to receive points, and even those companies were pretty low scoring. This means the palm oil that’s going into our Dunkin’ doughnuts and McDonald’s apple pies is still likely driving the destruction of habitat for the endangered orangutans and tigers, and spewing millions of tons of carbon dioxide (the leading greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere.
On average, personal care companies scored better than the fast food sector. However, only two companies, L’Oréal and Reckitt Benckiser (which makes Clearasil and other products) have committed to buy traceable deforestation- and peat-free palm oil. Many of the other companies rely on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) standards to meet their palm oil commitments. I’ve written before on the limitations of the RSPO to address deforestation and peatland conversion. Companies in all three sectors that currently rely on the RSPO need to go further in order to fully address the deforestation and peatland destruction associated with palm oil.
The packaged food sector has the strongest commitments overall. Four out of ten companies (Kellogg’s, Mondelēz, Nestlé, Unilever) are leading the way with commitments to buy traceable deforestation- and peat-free palm oil. The rest of the companies in this sector have a lot of work to do to catch up with the leaders.
Even those companies that have made strong commitments, however, still have a long road ahead of them. Commitments are only the first step, and are only as good as the paper they’re printed on. The real change takes place when companies act on their commitments and put them into practice. A journey might start with a single step, but you’ll never reach your destination if you don’t take the rest of them.
What can you do to make companies change their ways? The best thing you can do is demand that these companies take deforestation off their ingredient list. We know from experience that when consumers talk, companies listen. For example, back in 2010 consumers and NGOs organized a massive campaign against Nestlé, after it was linked to deforestation and other problems related to the palm oil it used. As a direct result Nestlé now has the strongest palm oil commitment out there.
Does this mean you should stop buying products with palm oil? The short answer is “no.” The longer answer can be found in this post. It’s more effective to pressure companies than it is to change global buying habits.
So, let’s make sure we can buy our favorite products without feeling a pang of guilt and demand that ALL companies stop buying palm oil that destroys forests and peatland. Based on our review of 30 companies, UCS has chosen six of the largest palm oil buyers in the fast food, personal care, and packaged food sectors that have the ability to help move the entire industry—if they act now. We need your help to convince these big brands to take palm oil seriously. Visit www.ucsusa.org/palmoilaction to send a message to the companies demanding that they do better.]]>
First, different vegetable oils can be easily substituted in many applications. Most of us have experienced this firsthand. If you’re cooking dinner and realized you’re out of olive oil, rather than head to the store and buy some, you just reach for the canola oil instead.
Second, because of this substitutability, a decrease in demand for palm oil from one company or country won’t mean an overall decrease in palm oil demand. If customers in the U.S. stop buying palm oil, then to meet its vegetable oil demand the U.S. has to import more of another oil to meet its current demand. If the U.S. is buying more, say, canola oil then it means that another country somewhere else is buying less. The other country needs to find something to meet its demand and is likely to buy the cheapest vegetable oil on the market: palm oil.
Finally, the oil palm is a great crop. It’s a tree that doesn’t have to be replanted every year and the typical rotation for a palm plantation is 25 years. It also stores a lot of carbon. Not as much as a forest, but more than grasslands and other agricultural crops. And above all else, it’s highly productive. To replace all palm oil on the global market with another oil would take between 5-8 times as much land.
So the problem isn’t with palm oil, but arises when forests and peatlands are converted to plantations. This leads to loss of habitat and millions of tonnes of carbon emissions. The solution isn’t to boycott palm oil, but rather to demand that companies use and produce palm that is deforestation- and peat-free.]]>
Wilmar’s “No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation Policy” requires that all of the palm oil it produces and trades is free of deforestation, peatland destruction, and exploitation. However, not everyone is enthusiastic about Wilmar’s announcement and particularly its peatland protections.
I asked my colleague, Lael Goodman, an analyst with the Tropical Forest Team and our resident peat expert, to explain the situation. Here’s what she had to say:
Wilmar’s announcement had three main points relating to peat soils.
One of the most vocal groups concerned with these new policies is the Sarawak Oil Palm Plantation Owner’s Association (SOPPOA), which represents oil palm plantation owners in the Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. Sarawak is rich in peat soils, so this new policy could have real implications for where oil palm plantations can expand in that state.
The SOPPOA is making claims that currently there are no credible scientific studies to justify the policy of ‘No Peat’ planting because all planters in the Sarawak adhere to the Malaysian Palm Oil Board’s Best Management practices for planting on peat, which they claim are scientifically sound and sustainable. Additionally, in a newspaper article, a SOPPOA spokesperson is quoted as saying that there is not a scientific consensus that peat has either high carbon stock or releases high levels of carbon dioxide. All of these statements are scientifically untrue.
Tropical peat is formed when vegetation, such as dead branches or leaves, does not decompose fully, storing carbon in dead organic matter. High water tables in peatlands limit the amount of oxygen that reaches the organic material. In total, Malaysia alone is estimated to have 9 Gt of carbon contained in its peatlands.
While high water tables are responsible for preventing the organic material from decaying, the flipside is that when these peat soils are drained, they are again exposed to oxygen.
As organic material decays, the embodied carbon, much of which has been building for thousands of years, is released as carbon dioxide. While intact peatlands also emit carbon dioxide, it has been shown that disturbed peatlands lose carbon not only from the upper levels of soil and from plant growth, but also the carbon that has been stored in the soil for centuries. And many studies (like this one) have shown that planting oil palm on peat soils leads to carbon dioxide emissions.
If all the carbon in Malaysian peat soils were to be released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, it would be equivalent to the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from 2008-2012.
In its introduction, these guidelines make the point that, “It is the prerogative of any government to develop its land resources for the socio-economic benefit of its people.” However, it does not then necessarily follow that these practices are, as stated previously, “scientifically sound and sustainable.”
By far the largest problem is that these guidelines do not take into account the enormous importance, both in terms of carbon and biodiversity, of these lands. Other than recommending that a survey “study” the biodiversity, hydrology, peat soil characteristics, potential yield, and social impact on local communities, there is very little on which areas of land should be left undeveloped.
The only explicit guidance is that it is recommended that the “top part of the peat dome be not developed, but kept as a high conservation value forest and water catchment area.” This shows a lack of understanding of the hydrology of peat domes. Peat domes are sensitive ecosystems, such that changes (e.g. draining for agriculture) in one part of the dome could have cascading effects elsewhere.
The MPOB guidelines also allow for controlled fires. However, drained tropical peat soils are extremely flammable and in the past have gotten out of control, causing fires that have raged for months, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere and causing health concerns. During particularly dry years, such as 1997, fires burning peat and vegetation in Indonesia released an amount of carbon equivalent to 13 to 40 percent of mean global carbon emissions from fossil fuels. Just this year, it has been reported that there have been more than 7,000 bush and peat fires in Malaysia since the beginning of February.
The Malaysian Palm Oil Board states that Sarawak has about 1.6 million hectares of peatlands. By the early 2000s, Sarawak had already lost about 100,000 ha (~247,000 acres) of peatlands to oil palm plantations. It is estimated that only 10 percent of peatlands from Peninsular Malaysia, Borneo, and Sumatra are either intact or only slightly degraded.
Wilmar’s peat-free palm oil policy does not mean it will stop sourcing palm oil from Sarawak, but rather that it recognizes that peatlands are a valuable resource to be protected. Around 71 percent of oil palm plantations in Sarawak are located on non-peat soils, so Wilmar can continue to source from those plantations. Further, Wilmar’s policy doesn’t prohibit it from sourcing from the 29 percent of palm plantations currently established on peat, only that those plantations use best management practices to reduce carbon emissions and environmental damage.]]>