Sweets, shampoo and baked goods have an ingredient in common which leads to the destruction of rainforests, the loss of homes and land from indigenous people and the loss of habitat for native animals. It’s palm oil, and it’s used in a range of different products. Each year 50 million tons of palm oil is produced, but people who buy it don’t know the impact they’re having because of loose labeling laws that let vendors hide the ingredient behind vague descriptions.

Ben Dowdle, the campaign director at Unmask Palm Oil, is working on a solution to stop the unsustainable use of palm oil. I talked to him to learn more about why mandatory labelling is the answer to the problem.

A palm oil plantation. Picture: CIFOR

A palm oil plantation in Bogor, Indonesia. Picture: A_Rabin (Flickr)

What is your campaign, Unmask Palm Oil, trying to achieve?

We’re trying to get mandatory labelling of palm oil in Australia and New Zealand. At the moment, companies can label palm oil generically as vegetable oil which can mean any kind of oil. We’re trying to get a change which has been done in Europe, the US and Canada where although they still label vegetable oil, in brackets next to it they have to say specifically what oils they are.

Ben Dowdle

Ben Dowdle

Where did this idea of unmasking palm oil all begin?

We were a bunch of students in the environmental council at Pakuranga College and we learnt about deforestation palm oil was causing in South East Asia. We then performed an audit of our food technology pantry and discovered the labelling issue. Basically we realised that because there is no labelling of palm oil, it is impossible to find out whether it is in the product in the first place and therefore to boycott products which use unsustainable palm oil.

And how will labelling whether a product uses palm oil or not help to stop deforestation and the loss of land for native animals and indigenous people?

We know that once consumers know if palm oil is in a product, they are able to put pressure on companies to demand that they actually have good sustainable palm oil policies. So for example in the European Union when they brought in mandatory labelling of palm oil, just in the six months leading up to it, they saw a 65% increase of sustainable palm oil being bought. When companies know they have to label their products and that the information goes out there and that consumers will respond to it, then they are more likely to use sustainable palm oil.

So from what I understand Unmask Palm Oil isn’t about eradicating the use of it, it’s about supporting plantations which use sustainable palm oil?

Definitely, so at the moment, 50% of plantations come at the expense of rainforest but there is also another 50% which are just normal agriculture conversions. For example rubber plantations becoming palm oil plantations or abandoned land being put into palm oil. Those plantations have no environmental impact. So what we want to do is to support the plantations which are sustainable and not support or buy palm oil which is causing deforestation. Essentially, we want people to buy certified sustainable palm oil.

When did momentum for this campaign begin?

When we first started Unmask Palm Oil, it was very small. Then a lot of other schools wanted to get involved in the wider Auckland area. Once NZ First came on board, we made it a national campaign and when we figured out the actual process for mandatory labelling of palm oil, we made it an Australasian campaign. It was all very accidental in terms of how fast it grew but we just kept building on it.

When will we be able to see mandatory labelling of palm oil in Australasia?

We’re building up to the meeting in June next year, it’s called the Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation. The forum is made up of ten ministers: nine from Australia because they get state and territory votes, and one from New Zealand. They’ll be voting to decide whether or not mandatory labeling of palm oil goes ahead so we’re really working up to that and we’re working with a lot of organisations at the moment to build support and make sure the ministers are lobbied.

And how can youth help to convince these ministers?

What we’re asking people to do is write a letter to their minister. So if you go to our website Unmask Pail Oil, and go to the Take Action area, you can see that you can write an email directly to the minister. The form is very easy to fill out, you just have to put in your email address and it will tell the minister exactly why you want labeling and why we need it.

There isn’t a lot of time left to get involved and help this cause, so make sure you jump onto the website and become part of a positive change in our world!