How an Ingredient Found in Everything from Chocolate to Chips Is Causing Massive Environmental Destruction

Carbon-rich peatlands extend 30-40 feet into the earth. When burned, they can be the largest source of world greenhouse gases, equivalent to that of all U.S. annual coal emissions. A significant amount of the palm oil on peatlands is used for biofuels. But, growing palm oil on environmentally sensitive, carbon-rich peatlands only adds to overall global climate change pollution even if a country wants to use biofuels to offset its own emissions.

Wetlands International is an environmental group working on palm plantations on peatlands. “What is the use of a biofuel that pollutes more than normal diesel and that destroys globally significant biodiversity?” asks spokesperson Marcel Silvius. European Union nations, in particular, are using palm oil as a biofuel as part of their efforts to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. “As long as a substantial part of palm oil is derived from plantations that have been developed on peat, or by converting rainforest areas, palm oil will pollute more than normal fossil fuel diesel, and it will thus enhance climate change rather than mitigate it,” says Wetlands’ Silvius.

Nestlé’s announcement could provide significant momentum to create market incentives and infrastructure for increased production in sustainable palm oil. It also could bode well for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which has faced criticism from groups like Greenpeace (not a member) which believe that large palm-producing members, such as Sinar Mas, hold the upper hand over the organization. In the murky world of palm oil production, Sinar Mas, a former client of Nestlé’s, has been targeted as among the most destructive. In a massive rebuke to the company, Nestlé’s new palm oil policy (outlined in its official May 17 announcement) includes canceling all contracts with Sinar Mas.

“The standards on their own are terrible. [It’s] astounding that there’s no carbon footprint analysis or climate footprint,” Skar says of the Roundtable. However, the Nestlé announcement is a significant step toward reforming and strengthening the organization’s clout. For his part, Skar is more concerned about how the governing body will evolve to have stricter, enforceable standards as Nestlé moves toward ensuring that 100 percent of its supply chain is sustainable. “I certainly hope it will mean more than it does today. And I am cautiously optimistic it will.”

Cargill is another company that could be affected by Nestlé’s new policy. The Minnesota-based international food producer is the biggest importer of palm oil to the U.S. and the second largest supplier worldwide, and Sinar Mas is one of its largest suppliers. According to Leila Salazar-Lopez, agribusiness campaign director at Rainforest Action Network, the Nestlé decision “will put more pressure on Cargill to look at their supply chain and decide if they’ll be associated with bad actors like Sinar Mas.” She also believes it will help to put pressure on other Cargill customers like Kraft, Pepsi, Mars and Proctor & Gamble. Following on the heels of Greenpeace’s consumer campaign against Nestlé, Salazar-Lopez is optimistic that individuals can impact Cargill’s palm oil policies. “If the customers ask for it, they will change,” she says.

In response to the Nestlé announcement, Cargill spokeswoman Susan Eich said the company is “supportive of initiatives that promote the development of sustainable palm oil [and] we will be working with Nestlé to better understand any specific requirements that may result.” But Rainforest Action Network continues to lead a heated campaign against Cargill. It recently issued a report charging the company with operating undisclosed palm oil plantations that were in violation of both the Roundtable’s standards and Indonesian law. The company disputes these charges; Eich says Cargill’s “eventual goal is to have a 100-percent RSPO-certified supply chain in the future.”

With the recent Greenpeace-Nestlé deal, though, Greenpeace’s Skar is optimistic about other companies changing their practices. “Nestlé’s move sends a clear message to Sinar Mas and to the rest of the palm oil and paper industries that rainforest destruction is not acceptable in the global marketplace,” he said. Indeed, the economic incentives of the Nestlé decision are not lost on Cargill. As a key player in palm oil, efforts by environmental groups will continue to be directed at the company to change its policies. Of course, their campaigns are time-sensitive — the rapid rate of forest and peatland destruction will continue leading to disastrous long-term environmental impacts.

“We need to win now. We don’t have time to waste on this one,” said Skar. “The response is so immediate and clear. This problem will be solved. It’s just a matter of how long it will take.” (Posted by

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