An Independent Australian senator Nick Xenophon wants consumers to know if their food contains palm oil produced through deforestation. Palm oil production has been linked with mass deforestation and the further endangerment of orangutans in Southeast Asia. But the Malaysian Palm Oil Council says the Bill is based on false claims and that the livelihood of over half a million local workers will be threatened if it goes ahead.
Reporter: Alma Mistry
MISTRY: The World Bank says over six million of the world's rural poor rely on palm oil to earn a living. Hundreds of millions more also use it as a cheap cooking staple. But environmental groups and the United Natrions say palm oil is driving deforestation in Southeast Asia. Now the Australian independent senator Nick Xenophon has proposed a bill that would see all products containing palm oil labelled as such.
XENOPHON: And if the product is sourced from certified sustainable palm oil it ought to say that as well because there is a big difference between certified sustainable palm oil and palm oil that isn't sustainable.
MISTRY: A coalition of Australian zoo's and conservation groups have made submissions to a Senate inquiry into the Bill. Jenny Gray is the Chief Executive Officer of Zoos Victoria. She says there's much public support for the bill.
GRAY: We collected 163, 917 signatures. All of these are people who've stood up and said we want to know if there's palm oil in our food.
MISTRY: Environmental groups arguing against unsustainable palm oil production, have focussed on the plight of orangutans or apes, in Southeast Asia. The Worldwide Fund for Nature says at the current rate of deforestation, orang utans could be extinct within 20 years.
Jenny Gray says the primates are used to highlight the effect of deforestation upon the whole eco-system.
GRAY: They represent all the other animals that live within tropical rainforests and as those rainforests are destroyed to make way for some of our consumer demands, orangutans and everything else that lives and depends on those rainforests come to be impacted.
MISTRY: But the palm oil sector says it's being unfairly pilloried by environmental groups. The majority of palm oil production takes place in Malaysia and Indonesia. The CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council Yusof Basiron told the senate committee the proposed bill is based on misleading information.
BASIRON: Erroneous statistics and is directly aimed at harming the Malaysian economy and Malaysia's largest agriculture export palm oil. In particular I wish to note to the members of the committee that this bill will have no benefit for the environment, forests or orangutan populations of Malaysia. It is unfortunate that the orangutans have been used or more accurately, mis-used in this debate. Our industry is not a rapacious destroyer of either forests or orangutans.
MISTRY: While a 2007 UN report says palm oil plantations are the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia, Dr Basiron says his country has set aside vast forest areas in Borneo that are home to orangutans, for conservation.
BASIRON: Leading conservationists have noted that the primary threats of the orang utans in Borneo are poachers, hunting by people, poor regulation of existing laws. The Malaysian government and the palm oil industry are actively advancing programs to protect the orang utans.
MISTRY: Dr Basiron says 43 percent of Malaysia's palm oil plantations are owned by small holders -not large companies. He says ultimately the labelling laws would provide comfort to rich westerners while decimating the livelihood of poor workers.
BASIRON: It may make the adherents and supporters of Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund have a great degree of self satisfaction when sipping their skinny lattes, but to 570,000 Malaysians and their families there is no self satisfaction.
MISTRY: And while he says he supports sustainable palm oil, he says certification should remain voluntary because of the cost it imposes on small plantations.
BASIRON: The process of auditing, certification costs like at least 10 US dollars per tonne of palm oil to get cerified. And for a whole industry between Indonesia and Malaysia that is producing 40 million tonnes, roughly of palm oil a year that would be 400 million US dollars additional.
MISTRY: The Senate committee is due to report back to parliament in mid-June.