PALM OIL, THE GAME IS (ALMOST) OVER

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We started writing about the vicious link between palm oil and land grabbing back in 2010 (1). Highlighting the hollowness of the commitments made by large producers, traders and users, who have tried to dye the image of bloody tropical oil green (so-called greenwashing), with no regard for the impact of land robbery on local communities (2). In late 2014, we launched a petition against the use of palm oil in the food supply chain, collecting 176 thousand signatures to date. But only now-after tough battles that have seen lucrative ‘pro-palm’ advertising campaigns pitted against our humble and penniless independent information-are we seeing a concrete sign of taking responsibility (see attachment at the bottom of the page) from AIDEPI, the association representing the Italian confectionery industry giants. A good step forward, but that is not all. Let’s see why.

Palm oil and #Land grabbing

Between 2008 and 2014 in developing countries at least 56 million hectares of land (equal to the size of France) were grabbed by foreign investors (3). At the end of 2014, the international NGO Grain surveyed 66 macro land-grabbing operations in tropical countries exclusively aimed at mono-intensive oil palm cultivation (4). Sub-Saharan Africa-Ethiopia, Uganda, Congo, Cameroon, Gabon, Guinea and Guinea Bissau, Togo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Benin, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Senegal, etc. – has been the epicenter of the most recent predatory instincts, thanks to the instability of local governments and the resulting ease of acquisitions and clearances of huge tracts of forest land at laughable costs (5).

The voracious demand for palm has also not neglected Southeast Asia. 8 million hectares of natural habitat are ‘palm-endangered’ in the Philippines, 5.5 million hectares of land already under foreign rule in Papua New Guinea, 5 million hectares in the hands of 25 large investors in Indonesia (6).

From Southeast Asia to Latin America, palm lust has spread to the Amazon area of Peru, as well as Honduras and Colombia (7).

Palm Oil and #Deforestation.

The report“Corporations, Commodities, and Commitments that Count,” published in March 2015 by the Supply-Change organization (8), attributes at least two-thirds of tropical deforestation to irresponsible forest management for speculative agricultural purposes in response to growing demand for palm oil first, soybeans and cattle to follow.

All palm oil production on a global scale takes place in countries that were once home to tropical forests. But the unchecked expansion of such crops threatens the environment as well as human rights, continue the Supply-Change researchers, who say that to date only 10 percent of the market is covered by the “certified tons of palm oil” which moreover, for 69%, are expressed through credit transactions or certificates (sigh!). That is to say, even such “virtuous” productions are unable to curb the phenomena of land robbery and illegal deforestation.

Grain in turn recently denounced the immensity of European imports of“food commodities” whose production comes from land that has been illegally robbed and deforested (9).

Palm oil and #health.

It is regretful to note that Italian consumers have begun to become aware of the ‘palm phenomenon’ not because of news reports of land robbery and deforestation, but rather because of fears that this tropical fat may be harmful to their health (10).

Indeed, even before the controversy erupted, medical research had already highlighted some risks, not even negligible, associated with palm oil consumption. Because of its saturated fatty acid content, and more:

– palmitic acid plays a proinflammatory role on cell membranes (11). It induces atherosclerosis and plays a key role in metabolic changes characterized by inflammatory processes, such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, with dysregulation of normal insulin metabolism. Palmitic also plays a key role in the production of necrotic factor alpha, the origin of tumors,

– ingestion of palmitic acid is then followed by certain liver changes, starting with steatosis, so-called ‘fatty liver syndrome,’ which is quite rare in individuals not exposed to alcohol (and palm). Liver fat accumulation in turn stimulates the production of certain cytokines at the center of inflammatory and oxidative processes that can lead-in the long term-to various noncommunicable diseases, from diabetes to cardiovascular disease,

– Various researches have since shown how inflammatory processes, in addition to triggering the ‘Non-Communicable Diseases’ mentioned above (diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity) are themselves a direct cause of brain and neurological suffering (12), as moreover already seen in studies of obese patients. Obesity-even childhood obesity, which is growing dangerously (13)-is itself a long-standing food-based inflammatory process. But only in recent years has research begun to investigate about the multiple and long-term effects of certain risk factors.

The ‘palm advocates’ have tried to object to all evidence, effectively alleging in summary that it is the dose that makes the poison, and that the dose is not that excessive. They have gone so far as to compare tropical oil with butter and olive, in defiance of all logic. Until, in recent days, the European Food Safety Authority decreed the absolute dangerousness (14) of carcinogenic and genotoxic process contaminants, which in palm residue in significant quantities.

From #greenwashing to #CSV

With discreet foresight, the protagonists of the colossal palm business had an idea to create an entity that with a veil of green–greenwashing, in the jargon–could cover up the horrendous crimes committed to the detriment of local people and the environment. The RSPO, ‘Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil production’ (15) which just in the last few months has begun to emerge among the sponsors of pro-palm articles, even in a hitherto respectable paper like the progressive The Guardian in England.

The first response of large palm users had thus focused on the opaque promise to opt for sustainable production. But the blanket was too small to cover a gigantic demand, and the ‘governance’ (15) of a body made up of some of the same perpetrators of ‘land grabbing’ and ecocide not exactly ‘above suspicion’.

Large operators, including retail chains in Italy and France, have therefore directed their commitments toward reducing the overall demand for palm, replacing it (16) with other fats-such as sunflower, olive and butter-which nevertheless reward homegrown agricultural production and also make it possible to shorten distances, approaching ‘zero kilometer,’ thus also reducing the environmental impact of transporting huge quantities of raw materials.

These choices are now being rewarded by millions of consumers, and they will soon be rewarded by representatives of those agricultural supply chains-those of dairy farmers, in particular-that have suffered severely in recent years from globalization and the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, with which important public subsidies have come to an end.

Therefore, it is possible to move beyond the already outdated and corrupt paradigm of so-called CSR (‘Corporate Social Responsibility’) to CSV, ‘Contibuting to Social Values’ (17). With the idea of aggregating shared values to each organization’s strategies, in the hope that the ‘common good’ is not just utopia.

There is still a lot to be done on palm, eliminating it from products sold in bulk in bakeries bakeries and public establishments, from restaurant and ‘fast-food’ fries, from personal and household hygiene products, cosmetics and whatnot. Keeping in mind especially the original problem – ‘land grabbing’ – which can and must be addressed as soon as possible in a broader context if still far from the political priorities of any government (18).

Dario Dongo

Notes

(1) http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/nasce-un-nuovo-colonialismo-agricolo-le-potenze-emergenti-rapinano-territori-in-africa-caraibi-e-pacifico.html

(2) http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/olio-palma-rspo.html, http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/i-produttori-di-olio-di-palma-sostengono-di-voler-salvare-le-foreste-ma-e-davvero-cosi.html, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/23477

(3) http://www.oaklandinstitute.org/publications

(4) http://www.grain.org/article/entries/5031-planet-palm-oil.pdf, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/23973, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24423

(5) Africa, between palm, land robbery and environmental (in)sustainability, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24593, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24343, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24519. More information on:

– Ethiopia, http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/land-grabbing.html, http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/land-grabbing-catherine-ashton.html, http://www.oaklandinstitute.org/engineering-ethnic-conflict,

– Congo, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/21696, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/22141,

– Uganda, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24785-criticism-of-gar-and-wilmar-african-oil-palm-projects-highlight-global-no-deforestation-challenges, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24606, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24556,

– Cameroon,73 thousand hectares robbed to grow palm by U.S. fund Herakles, at http://www.oaklandinstitute.org/herakles-exposed.

– Nigeria, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24206, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24172

– Gabon, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/21237, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24608,

– Guinea, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/23778,

– West Africa. In the 9 countries alone-Bénin, Burkina Faso, Côte-d’Ivoire, Guinée, Guinée-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Sénégal, and Togo-at least 2.3 million hectares of land robbed between 2000 and 2012, with palm tree as the prime target, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24703-si-les-populations-se-battent-laccaparement-des-terres-sarretera,

– Liberia, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/23743, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24785, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24468, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24645,

– Sierra Leone, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24212.

– Sao Tome and Principe, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/21240

(6) Southeast Asia:

– Philippines, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24737-caraga-eyed-for-oil-palm-amid-1-m-hectare-target-for-mindanao, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/23547, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24176, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24679-malaysian-firm-to-develop-1-000-hectare-for-oil-palm, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24385, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24051,

– Papua New Guinea and Borneo, http://www.oaklandinstitute.org/our-land-modern-land-grabs-reversing-independence-papua-new-guinea, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/23840, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24252. Stanford University study at http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/21122,

– Indonesia, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24725-in-indonesia-local-communities-lose-out-as-oil-palm-expands, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/23419, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24644, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24562). Video at http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24467,

(7) Latin America:

– Peru, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24762-peru-palma-aceitera-amenaza-devastar-la-amazonia. Again, at http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24626,

– Honduras, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24312, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/23827,

– Colombia, http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24397,

(8) http://forest-trends.org/releases/uploads/Supply%20Change_Report.pdf

(9) http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/24664-eu-agricultural-imports-linked-to-illegal-deforestation-study-claims

(10) https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/news-food-times/il-palma-fa-davvero-male-alla-salute-no-fa-malissimo-e-i-consumattori-reagiscono

(11) Int J Mol Med. 2014 Dec;34(6):1706-12. doi: 10.3892/ijmm.2014.1942. Epub 2014 Sep 22.

Palmitic acid exerts pro-inflammatory effects on vascular smooth muscle cells by inducing the expression of C-reactive protein, inducible nitric oxide synthase and tumor necrosis factor-α. Wu D1, Liu J1, Pang X1, Wang S1, Zhao J1, Zhang X1, Feng L1

(12) J Neurochem. 2012 Mar;120(6):1060-71. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-4159.2012.07660.x. Epub 2012 Feb 6. Saturated long-chain fatty acids activate inflammatory signaling in astrocytes. Gupta S1, Knight AG, Gupta S, Keller JN, Bruce-Keller AJ

(13) https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/idee/tra-politica-e-responsabilità-d enterprise-the-challenge-of-obesity-and-diabetes

(14) https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/idee/l’palm-oil-contains-carcinogenic-and-genotoxic-substances-efsa-alert-for-children-and-adolescents-in-italy-consumes-record

(15) http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/i-produttori-di-olio-di-palma-sostengono-di-voler-salvare-le-foreste-ma-e-davvero-cosi.html

(16) https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/idee/grasso-di-palma-eliminarlo-si-può-ecco-come

(17) https://www.greatitalianfoodtrade.it/idee/editoriale-expo-2015-milano-marchi-e-sostenibilità-in-cerca-di-un-nuovo-paradigma-dalla-csr-alla-csv

(18) http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/fao-rapina-terre.html, http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/fame-sovrappopolazione-sviluppo.html

 

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.