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Setting the watchdogs on deforestation

Deforestation increases as demand continually rises for palm oil
Deforestation increases as demand continually rises for palm oil
Deforestation area (Brazil). Credit: Brent Stirton / Getty images / WWF

Palm oil is used widely. It is used for preventing diseases and is high in vitamins. Usages span a great range from cooking to cosmetics and from increasing the body's metabolism to keeping our bodies clean. It is used in biofuel and is found in about half of all grocery store finds. It is a prevalent ingredient, common. It is also a readily available and affordable resource that has been reported to promote significant deforestation.

According to Ethical Consumer, 6.7 million acres of deforestation occurred as a result of the increased demand of palm oil in the 1990s. Demand has not decreased. In fact, palm oil manufacturers are looking to more places in which they can create plantations to harvest and process the oil because demand has continually increased. It has long been apparent that a solution is needed.

In an article on Tuesday, July 1, Wired Magazine noted that a newly made map of palm oil plantations, created by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), could help stave off rainforest destruction. The idea is to make the plantations visible. The map mentioned shows the location of active forest fires (which is the most common of the deforestation methods) and differentiates between sustainable and unsustainable palm oil plantations. The map puts the information not only into the hands of RSPO member companies but also into the hands of the public, making it possible for many more people to act as watchdogs over current practices.

It was a challenge to create a real-time map for this purpose but with the combination of data gleaned from Google, NASA, and other sources, the feat has been accomplished. While the map is a big step in the direction of holding palm oil plantation owners accountable, it does not guarantee compliance.

According to the RSPO’s own resources, the program is limited:

The Mass Balance system does not guarantee that the end product actually contains sustainable palm oil as conventional and sustainable oil are mixed throughout the supply chain (RSPO).

Unilever (one of the founding members of RSPO) suggests that palm oil users take responsibility in these efforts as the RSPO does their work:

The RSPO is a voluntary organisation and it has two mechanisms to ensure that members live up to their commitments. One is the Code of Conduct and the other is the certification framework. Palm oil producers are required to commit to having their operations certified against the RSPO standards. Users of palm oil are asked to commit to purchasing and using certified, sustainable palm oil. The mandatory annual reporting of progress is the check on each member, available on the RSPO website.

One way to shirk this whole business is to check your labels. Another is to just buy palm oil free products.

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