Check your fridge. Check your cosmetics cabinet. This might make uncomfortable reading, but it seems we have become unwittingly culpable in the decimation of one of the world’s great species of apes.
In a 16-year period up to 2015, it’s estimated that as many as 150,000 orangutans have been killed on the island of Borneo, in part so a fruitbased oil that appears in half of all our supermarket products can be grown.
The proliferation of plantations that produce palm oil has devastated the rainforest home of the orangutan – in the process orphaning hundreds of baby apes – to the point where one supermarket giant has now introduced a ban.
Iceland has announced that it will stop using palm oil in all its own-brand food by the end of the year. “Until Iceland can guarantee palm oil is not causing rainforest destruction we are simply saying ‘no’ to palm oil,” says the company’s managing director, Richard Walker.
The issue – as complex as it is distressing – is raised in a new Natural World documentary, Red Ape: Saving the Orangutan, this week. One of the programme’s contributors, academic and evolutionary biologist Dr Ben Garrod, says that, as with plastic, it’s consumers who have the power to bring about change. But it isn’t as black and white as it might seem.
“At the moment these poor orangutans are intentionally targeted, either if they live in rainforest that’s about to be cut down or if they happen to go anywhere near one of the existing plantations,” says Garrod. “They’re shot, they’re snared, they’re burnt alive.
“So every time we use a product that specifically says, ‘made with palm oil’, we are contributing to more forest being cut down, to adult orangutans being killed and babies being orphaned. Yes, that’s me tugging on the heartstrings, but that’s what’s happening.”
Our response would seem straightforward – we should simply boycott products that contain palm oil. But the issue is heavily nuanced. Firstly, there’s no consistency in the labelling of goods on our supermarket shelves, but the bigger issue is knowing whether the oil comes from plantations that are considered environmentally friendly – to use the jargon, “sustainable” – or from plantations that threaten the rainforest. Unhelpfully, the main protagonists disagree about the best approach.
Iceland managing director Walker said a recent trip to Indonesia had convinced him that it’s impossible to prove that any palm oil entering the market has been farmed in an ethical way. “This journey has shown me that, currently, no major supermarket or food manufacturer can substantiate any claim that the palm oil they use is truly sustainable,” he said. Hence the ban.
Yet the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which is working on a solution that stops the destruction of rainforest but keeps farmers in business, has branded Iceland’s intervention as unhelpful. “Twenty-one per cent of current global palm oil production is certified as sustainable,” says WWF’s palm-oil expert Dr Emma Keller. “What we want brands like Iceland to do is ask for more sustainable palm oil, which sends a strong signal to growers that there is a market for their product if they produce it sustainably. We don’t believe it’s helpful to walk away from the issue, particularly when we don’t know what they’re substituting palm oil with.
“Iceland have quite a small product range compared to some of the other big supermarkets. The volume of palm oil Iceland use – around 500 tons – is not going to contribute anything to stopping deforestation. What we really want Iceland to do is play a role in eliminating the problem.”
But as long as palm oil is hitting the market from sources that are damaging the rainforest, shouldn’t there be a boycott? No, says Keller.
“One of the challenges of banning palm oil is you end up substituting it with another oil crop that could require up to nine times the amount of land to produce the same volume of oil. We want to see companies working towards more change, not transferring the problem to a different crop, grown in a different country.”
The answer, she says, is for shoppers to search the websites of retailers and manufacturers and check what their palm-oil policy is. “They should spend their money on brands that are doing the right thing, and using sustainable palm oil.”
While the debate rages, the land clearance on Borneo, which is three times the size of the UK, goes on. Forest cover, which was around 96 per cent of the island at the start of the 20th century, was down to 55 per cent in 2015, with oil-palm plantations accounting for around half of historic forest loss since 2005. The Natural World documentary says that an area of forest the size of a football pitch is being destroyed every 47 seconds.
That not only means a loss of habitat for the orangutan, but it’s also allowing hunters to access the forest to kill the apes and traffic their young into the illegal pet trade. The 150,000 deaths in the past 16 years represent more than half of Borneo’s orangutan population.
Garrod says that despite the desperately bleak outlook, there remains hope. “We can reverse, genuinely reverse, what we’ve done within a couple of decades – but it has to be now. We are at a crossroads. If we don’t do anything now and we keep shopping blindly, we won’t have orangutans for our kids and grandkids. It’s as simple as that.”
Red Ape: Saving the Orangutan is on Thursday at 9pm on BBC2