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Raising awareness on palm oil


On 23 June 2011, the Coalition joined with the Greens and the independent Senator Nick Xenophon to ensure the Senate passed the Food Standards Amendment (Truth in Labelling—Palm Oil) Bill 2011 (the private members’ Bill has yet to be introduced into the House of Representatives). There are two main issues identified with palm oil: the environmental effects of plantations (including loss of tropical rainforest), and the health effects of palm oil versus other vegetable oils.

Palm oil is a product of the oil palm tree, which grows only in tropical climates. Highly versatile, palm oil is widely used in the manufacture of food products, cosmetics, detergents and bio-fuel. Increasing demand for this high yield crop has resulted in large scale plantation cultivation across Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Asia Pacific. Palm oil is today the most produced vegetable oil in the world and an expected 39 million metric tonnes will be exported globally in 2011/2012 (Oil World & RSPO Factsheet). According to the World Bank, the industry employs up to six million people globally. The growth of the palm oil plantation industry has rapidly expanded, particularly in South East Asia. In 2007, Malaysia and Indonesia accounted for 83 per cent of global palm oil production.

The rapid conversion of land to palm plantations has led to a variety of environmental issues, including deforestation, with flow-on effects to increased greenhouse gas emissions, and threats to biodiversity. Both Malaysia and Indonesia are host to extensive tropical forests and rich biodiversity within it, including the iconic and endangered great ape, the orangutan. A 2007 United Nations Environment (UNEP) report, The Last Stand of the Orangutan, identified palm plantations as the primary cause of tropical rainforest loss in these two countries, and one of the greatest threats to the orangutan which inhabits the forests of Borneo and northern Sumatra.

In addition to the environmental drawbacks of its production, palm oil contains high levels of saturated fat in comparison to other vegetable oils. It is relatively cheap, and is therefore used in a range of manufactured food products, including margarine, chips, confectionary and the like. Increased consumption of saturated fats is one of the causes of cardiovascular disease. There is also some research suggesting that palmitic acid (the chief constituent of palm oil) affects levels of insulin and leptin, two hormones involved in, respectively, regulation of blood glucose and regulation of appetite.

Under current labelling regulations consumers are not able to identify palm oil as an ingredient—instead all vegetable oils (palm, canola, sunflower etc) are generically listed as 'vegetable oil'. The Truth in Labelling-Palm Oil Bill seeks to address this issue by requiring Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) to develop and approve labelling standards to be used by producers, manufacturers and distributors of foods containing palm oil. This aims to allow informed consumer choice on purchasing food and other goods containing palm oil. It does this by amending the FSANZ Act to over-ride the existing powers and processes which must be followed to declare a food standard.
Post co-authored by Paula Pyburne.