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Monday, 26 November 2012
Page: 13193

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (Wills) (17:41): The Health and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 amends the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act 1991 to correct referencing inconsistencies within the act, including those related to the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. I would like to take the opportunity that this bill provides to speak about the issue of palm oil labelling, which is relevant to the issue of adequate food standards and labelling in Australia. Just as we have been tackling the root cause of illegal timber production through the historic reform of the Illegal Logging Prohibition Bill 2011, so too we have to tackle the root cause of unsustainable palm oil production. For this reason I strongly support the mandatory labelling of palm oil in Australia. The Don't Palm Us Off campaign by Zoos Victoria, which I have mentioned in the parliament before and which I support, aims to expose the link between consumers and orangutan survival in order to drive the production of certified sustainable palm oil through fair and mandatory labelling.

Just as we should be a responsible consumer of timber, we should also be a responsible consumer of palm oil. Palm oil is found in almost half the products on our supermarket shelves, yet it is not labelled. Labelling will help us create a consumer-driven market for certified sustainable palm oil—a form of palm oil that is produced in a more environmentally, socially and economically responsible way. Australian consumers want this, most of our major food manufacturers want this, and I believe it is the right thing to do for our community and for those communities in our neighbouring countries.

For over a year a fierce battle has raged over Indonesia's Tripa peat forest, an internationally protected region that is covered by a two-year moratorium on new forest concessions. It is being burnt and cleared at an alarming rate and it is being done so illegally in order to produce palm oil. The forest is home to people and wildlife and stores huge quantities of carbon. In 1990 almost 2,000 orangutans lived in the area. Today there are fewer than 200, as a result of illegal clearance and burning of their habitat for palm oil plantations. The smoke that has been generated by the illegal fires has devastated communities across the region and overwhelmed cities hundreds of kilometres away, causing people to seek medical treatment for smoke inhalation. So far more than 20 local communities have been impacted by the illegal clearing, including losing their land and livelihoods and suffering ill health.

In the report, Our land, our lives, Oxfam reveals a worrying rush to control the world's farmland and demands action to safeguard the welfare of poor and vulnerable communities. The report gives the following example:

In 2007, indigenous people in West Kalimantan, Indonesia complained to the World Bank that a palm oil company it supported had cut down their forest and forced them from their land. The Bank's complaints ombudsman investigated and discovered serious systematic problems, as a result of which Bank standards had been contravened and Bank staff had been able to claim (incorrectly) that the project would have 'minimal, or no direct, adverse social or environmental impacts'. There was such a controversy that the then Bank President, Robert Zoellick, suspended the Bank's lending to the palm oil sector for 18 months until a new strategy was in place, supposedly intended to ensure that such problems did not happen again.

Oxfam have called on the World Bank to institute a temporary freeze on investments involving large-scale land acquisitions. They believe a freeze would create space to develop policy and institutional protections to ensure that no bank supported project resulted in land grabbing and would allow time for the wider impacts of land transfers on poverty and food security to be assessed. Australia imports more than 130,000 tonnes of palm oil each year, which makes us a participant in illegal forest clearing, such as that that we have seen in the Tripa peat forest. It takes about 320 square kilometres of palm oil plantation to produce that 130,000 tonnes of palm oil, and this is a volume that continues to increase.

Deforestation releases large volumes of greenhouse gases. This is particularly severe in tropical forests growing on peat soils. In just one province of Indonesia, the Riau Province in Sumatra, the average annual greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2007 were an estimated 0.21 gigatonnes of CO2 arising from deforestation, forest degradation and the resulting peat fires. This deforestation destroys the habitat of iconic and endangered species like the orangutan, the Sumatran tiger, the Asian elephant and the Asian rhino. Of course, these species are just a small part of the entire threatened ecosystem.

It has been suggested that up to 300 football fields of forest are cleared every hour. The United Nations Environment Programme acknowledges that, in Malaysia and Indonesia, the main driver for this rainforest destruction is the development of palm oil plantations. The growing demand for palm oil is adding to the mounting pressures on the world's remaining rainforest areas. Forest loss and the draining of peat lands for palm oil plantations is contributing to climate change and displacing local people who rely on the forest for food and shelter. Palm oil is one of the world's most in-demand crops and land is being given over to it in Southeast Asia as well as in West Africa and South America.

There is an alternative to this, however, with certified sustainable palm oil, CSPO. This is palm oil that has been produced by plantations that have been well managed with good environmental, social and economic standards. For example, certified sustainable palm oil has to be sourced from plantations that were established on land cleared before 2005. So, by buying certified sustainable palm oil, major users of palm oil can avoid contributing to the ongoing destruction of forests in Southeast Asia.

In 2003 the WWF began to address the problem of deforestation to produce palm oil by setting up the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil with other non-government organisations and the palm oil industry. Since then they have worked with the industry to ensure that the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil standards contain robust social and environmental criteria, including a prohibition on the conversion of valuable forests. Millions of people rely on this industry for their livelihood. By promoting sustainable palm oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil we provide the growth of a sustainable palm oil industry that sets new environmental and social standards. However, at present there is only a small market for sustainable certified palm oil, so it is actually more cost effective for manufacturers to use palm oil from sources that destroy virgin rainforest.

The WWF are working hard towards creating consumer demand for certified sustainable palm oil by: raising public awareness about the issue; exposing the link between unsustainable palm oil, deforestation and threats to important ecosystems and species; and supporting the mandatory labelling of palm oil. The WWF produced a scorecard in 2011 that measured the performance of 132 major retailers and consumer goods manufacturers against four areas to show whether or not these companies were acting responsibly. That scorecard revealed that there had been some progress on sustainable palm oil since the 2009 assessment, but their conclusion was that the new commitments were not translating fast enough into increased use of certified sustainable palm oil. They concluded that time is running out for palm oil buyers to take action and that companies need to seize the opportunity to support sustainable palm oil and help to avoid the irrecoverable loss of tropical forests and the unique species that inhabit them. This is a chance to show the world that they are part of the solution rather than a part of the problem.

Palm oil production is the single biggest threat to Southeast Asian rainforests and biodiversity and the species which depend on them. The Sumatran orangutan is classified as critically endangered while the orangutan from Borneo is considered endangered. Populations of both species are decreasing rapidly and, given the current rates of decline, it is likely that they could become extinct in the wild within as little as 10 years.

As I mentioned earlier, in terms of carbon storage, deforestation from palm oil production releases large amounts of carbon that is stored in the vegetation. Oil palm plantations are estimated to hold even less carbon than a logged forest, made worse by the fact that these plantations are only viable for 25 years. Furthermore, more and more plantations are being cultivated on vulnerable peat soils, one of the largest naturally-occurring carbon deposits worldwide.

I believe that, in addressing the problems associated with palm oil production, we need to look at the issue holistically which includes utilising the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil more effectively to ensure sustainable palm oil production becomes the norm rather than the exception. As a result we can reduce deforestation and at the same time we can enable people in developing nations to have a livelihood. Mandatory labelling has a role to play in the solution to heighten consumer awareness and thus drive demand for certified sustainable palm oil.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has released new information sheets on country of origin labelling and new information sheets regarding olive oil. These new guides for consumers provide information about the different types of olive oil products and how they differ as well as some storage tips. The guide is about providing consumers with information to help them make informed purchasing decisions, and I welcome this initiative. But there is no requirement at present to label palm oil or its derivatives in a product's ingredients list. I believe this needs to change so that consumers can choose or demand the alternative to unsustainable palm oil.

The United Kingdom has recently announced that they will be certifying sustainable palm oil compliance by 2015. The British government, supermarkets, manufacturers, charities and the World Wide Fund for Nature have joined forces to work towards ensuring that by 2015 all palm oil used in everyday food and products, such as soaps, biscuits and cosmetics, is responsibly produced and does not contribute to deforestation. The British environment minister, Richard Benyon said:

People want to know that the products they are using are not contributing to deforestation and climate change and many UK businesses are already starting to make changes. Producers, manufacturers and charities will continue working together to speed up the move to 100 per cent sustainable palm oil in everyday products.

This announcement also has accompanied work through the international Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and the fact is that, at present, Australian consumers cannot tell whether they are contributing to deforestation and the accompanying threat to the survival of orangutans and other species, because palm oil is not clearly labelled on most food products. Changing food-labelling legislation in Australia to mandate the labelling of all food products containing palm oil would change this and create a market for certified sustainable palm oil by giving consumers their right to choose products that do not push endangered species to extinction. I commend this bill to the House.