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Easter eggs, palm oil and the Congo basin

Think before you eat Think before you eat Roger Ashford
03 Apr
As the UK gets ready to eat millions of chocolate eggs made with palm oil, Geographical explores the global implications of our dependence on this controversial ingredient

Easter eggs are a colourful microcosm of our dependence on a very global ingredient: palm oil.

A report published in 2013 by the Rainforest Foundation (UK), named and shamed the most unsustainable chocolate companies based on their palm oil content. Since then, market leaders such as Mars, Ferrero and Modelez International (Cadbury’s) have worked towards sourcing more sustainable palm oil. 

The chocolate guide was published to draw attention to the varying sustainability policies of big food manufacturers. It is part of a larger report,‘Seeds of Destruction’, which the RFUK hoped would alert the general public to the idea of palm oil companies expanding into the Congo rainforests. Since it was published, the RFUK have found that little has been done to decrease deforestation.

In essence, the chocolate industry moves towards greener policies but our overall demand for palm oil continues to rise. It is increasingly found in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and biofuels.

Most of the palm oil in our products comes from Southeast Asia, where Malaysia and Indonesia account for 90 per cent of global palm oil production. However, this is set to change. With demand predicted to outstrip supply, palm oil plantations need more land and cheap labour to expand their projects further afield. They look to the rainforests of Central and Western Africa as the ‘new frontier for palm oil’. Particularly, in the Congo river basin. 

Picture 6The Congo Basin (Image: RFUK)

With a small-scale palm oil industry already in place, the rainforests of the Congo basin have the ideal climate and the promise of rich, damp soils. Since 2008, palm oil companies from Malaysia, France, Belgium, Italy, Singapore, US, Canada and Spain have earmarked a total expansion of over 1.6 million hectares in the Congo basin made up of substantial plantations in Cameroon, Congo, DR Congo and Gabon.

However, the devastating impact the palm oil industry has had on the rainforests of Malaysia and Indonesia are an ominous reminder of the potential damage threatened by unchecked oil production. According to estimations by the World Research Institute in Washington D.C, Indonesia lost more than six million hectares of forest land to palm oil plantations rainforests between 2000 and 2012 . An area half the size of England; of which 40 per cent was pristine, primary rainforest.

With the second largest rainforest in the world and some of the richest levels of biodiversity, the Congo Basin similarly has a lot to lose from the introduction of vast monocultures of palm. Cameroon is expected to lose as much as 75 per cent of its biodiversity if the controversial Herakles plantation becomes a reality. NGOs and local communities fear the deforestation that will need to take place in order to make room for these projects.

Picture 3Increase in the proposed Congo Basin projects (Image: RFUK)

As a resource, palm oil is actually incredibly efficient. It has the highest yield of any other oil crop and has the potential to be a low-impact ingredient. It can benefit local economies when planted sustainably, and not in the place of diminishing rainforests. 

However, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency, communities are excluded from these land management negotiations for agri-business. Much of the forested land is state-owned, allowing the potential theatre for back door business deals, without the informed consent of the indigenous and country locals. The Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification was introduced in 2004 to ensure that plantations are conflict-free, but many chocolate manufacturers have gone beyond that to demand that palm oil is certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO).

'There is potential for palm oil to be a ‘sustainable’ product.' said Simon Counsell, executive director of the RFUK. 'However, for this to become reality, the industry needs to pay much greater attention to both the direct and indirect social and environmental impacts that it can have.'

'In Africa, ‘sustainability’ probably means allowing local communities a greater say in how the industry is developed and ensuring they receive greater benefits than has generally been the case in southeast Asia' 

Nonetheless, without a drop in the demand for palm oil, it’s possible that the Easter eggs you eat in the next decade or so could be made with African palm oil. The RFUK report hopes that demand will slow as consumers opt for more sustainable brands which are moving towards greener ingredients across the board.

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