Why are we still eating food that contains palm oil?

IN 2009, a picture of a mother orang-utan, looking defeated while holding her infant among a cleared and burnt landscape, sat above my desk as I placed calls to all major food manufacturers across Australia.

The aim of each call was simple. I was seeking assurance that the palm oil coming into our country, and being consumed by everyday Australians, was not contributing to the loss of species.

The answer was clear. Unwittingly, with every visit to the supermarket, Australians were contributing to the growing global demand for unsustainable palm oil and therefore the loss of species such as our nearest cousins, the orang-utan. At that very same point in time, one of the first batches of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) had been produced and was sitting in vats waiting for the consumer market to motivate its purchase. As a result, Zoos Victoria's Don't Palm Us Off campaign was born.

A lot has changed since 2009, but not enough. We've seen companies such as Ferrero, Lindt and both Coles and Woolworths homebrand products sourcing certified sustainable palm oil, as well as accurately labelling it on their food products.

Arnott's, Kraft and Snackbrands are also sourcing certified sustainable palm oil, but refusing to label it on ingredients lists. And frustratingly, companies like Nestlé, Johnson & Johnson and Proctor & Gamble haven't made enough progress in a shift towards sustainable palm oil.

A female orang-utan with an infant in Borneo. The demand for unsustainable palm oil has seen a loss of habitat for these great apes through deforestation. (Pic: Supplied)
A female orang-utan with an infant in Borneo. The demand for unsustainable palm oil has seen a loss of habitat for these great apes through deforestation. (Pic: Supplied)

In the meantime, species such as the orang-utan, Sumatran tiger, Bornean pygmy elephant, Sumatran rhino, Sunda clouded leopard and the Malayan tapir continue their forced march towards the extinction line, due to the growing global demand for palm oil. It seems that as long as we are willing to buy palm oil, companies will be willing to displace entire species by clearing and burning rainforest to make way for palm oil plantations.

The current rate of rainforest clearance has set a trajectory that will see the extinction of orang-utans occur within our children's lifetime unless we can significantly shift consumers to sustainable options for edible oils.

And while that, along with the expansion of palm oil plantations now shifting across to nations such as Papua New Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo, can all seem too bleak to contemplate, we know that social change can and will save the species within these regions - if every nation does its part.

The United Nations warns that we must turn the global market for palm oil towards a sustainable solution or accept a future that eventually will be without orang-utans. And since Zoos Victoria's mission as a not-for-profit zoo-based conservation organisation is one committed to securing a future rich in wildlife, it's no surprise that I'm not willing to accept such a future.

When I first designed Zoos Victoria's Don't Palm Us Off campaign, I did so firmly believing that every Australian has a right to choose whether their purchases at the supermarket contribute to the loss of species. Nine years on, I still believe that.

Yet, despite hundreds of thousands of Australians having asked the government to legislate the mandatory labelling of palm oil, it continues to allow it to be hidden under the guise of "vegetable oil". The hesitation to label, we are told, is because the request is to protect the health and future of other species, rather than to improve human health.

An increasing number of health professionals support the call for mandatory labelling due to palm oil being a saturated fat and conservation organisations remind the Australian government that our long-term health is reliant upon a healthy environment.

Even so, Victoria remains the only state government that has taken a public stance by asking the federal government to legislate the transparent labelling of palm oil.

From signing petitions, to writing to food manufacturers and actively supporting food brands that are doing the right thing, we've proved that consumers can shift companies from the cheap and nasty version of palm oil to alternative options. But we haven't won yet.

Tomorrow, Ministers from across Australia will meet to discuss whether palm oil and other fats and oil should continue to be allowed to remain hidden on Australian food products.

The clock is ticking. I'm sitting at my computer, having viewed a video of a male orang-utan actively charging at a bulldozer in the centre of a cleared field where moments before rainforest had stood. He's fighting for the last tree standing, and losing, because he's standing alone against a force far mightier than him. This time, I'm not calling food manufacturers. Instead, I'm calling on you, the reader, to write to your local MP, state Health Minister and our federal Health Minister asking that Australia get this job done, finally.

Rachel Lowry is director of Wildlife Conservation & Science at Zoos Victoria and founder of Don't Palm Us Off.