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The high cost of cheap food

28th October 2005

Three major reports in the past two months have pressed the 'panic button' for wildlife threatened by the damaging effects of industrial food production.

Environmental organisations warn that global fish populations are reaching the point of no return. Even if urgent action is taken to change fishing methods and enforce fishing control zones, there may be no prospect of the recovery of certain fish such as Atlantic cod, Atlantic salmon and haddock.

Meanwhile, orang-utans, some of our nearest relatives, may become extinct within 12 years. This is due to forest clearances to make way for palm-oil plantations producing fatty ingredients for products such as margarine, pastries, biscuits and cosmetics.

Orangutan baby in treeFacing a bleak future: this baby orang-utan is losing her home to palm oil plantations (Baby Orangutan. © Orangutan Foundation)

The reports were published by the campaign organisations Friends of the Earth, Sustain: The alliance for better food and farming, and by the sustainability policy organisation Forum for the Future. They spell out the bleak message: If we do not find ways to control and police our exploitation of natural resources for food, then natural habitats will be destroyed forever, with devastating implications for wildlife, small-scale food producers and our health.

The message may not seem new, but the level of urgency has moved up a grade. These specialist organisations are talking in terms of years rather than decades for the permanent loss of certain natural resources and habitats that provide homes for a diverse range of animals and plants, livelihoods for many of the poorest people on the planet, and valuable food and other resources.

The solutions they propose are sobering. To save orang-utans, there is talk of a total ban on unsustainable palm oil that appears in one in ten food products on supermarket shelves. To save threatened fish stocks would require coordinated political action on an unprecedented level, with a total ban on certain types of fishing (e.g. bottom-trawling) and a return to more traditional methods such as line-catching, and establishment of internationally enforced 'no catch' zones.

Yet what will push government and food manufacturers into action? Where is the incentive and policy framework for change? Consumers are barely aware of the links between their food choices and the far-away effects on wildlife and ecosystems. And labels fail to inform them of the negative impact of their choices. In a special report, we examine proposals for legislative and market-based measures to achieving a secure future for marine and forest habitats around the world.

Invisible damage

Everyday food products are implicated in the destruction of forests and sea-life, with untold consequences for wildlife, millions of livelihoods and our health. What can be done to reverse the destruction?

Human beings have a tough choice to make. If we continue eating the same food that we do now, then it is pretty much certain that within the next few years we will see the destruction of marine and forest habitats that support fish and apes, resulting in the extinction of many familiar species.

Beyond the pure conservation concerns that this raises, these same natural habitats also provide a living for millions of people - some of them from the poorest communities on earth. The Food & Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO) estimates that the fishing industry alone supports 200 million livelihoods worldwide.

Increasing evidence linking marine oils to brain development and heart health should also give us pause for thought. What happens when we destroy one of the richest sources of omega-3 oils - marine fish?

The links between the food we buy on the supermarket shelves and the destruction of ecosystems is obscure to all but the most inquisitive of shoppers. Some positive eco-labelling does now exist to assure consumers that their purchases are more sustainable. However, the majority of products bought by most people on an everyday basis contain ingredients that are unsustainable. Their continued sale will ultimately result in the destruction of both unsustainable and sustainable resources.

Who would have guessed, for example, that buying a tub of margarine in a UK supermarket can contribute to the alarming decline of orang-utan populations? Who would believe that buying products containing palm oil implicates the buyer in a trail of destruction that leads right back to Sumatran forests? Yet this is the very finding of a report from Friends of the Earth entitled The Oil for Apes Scandal, published in September.

Ninety per cent of the world's palm-oil exports come from plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia – mainly the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Forests are being cleared to make way for palm plantations to provide ingredients for lucrative overseas markets. The very lowland forest that the oil-palm industry favours for conversion is the only remaining habitat of the orang-utan.

The UK is the second biggest importer of palm oil from Europe (after Holland). Palm oil imports into the UK doubled between 1995 and 2004 to 914,000 tonnes, representing nearly a quarter of total EU palm-oil imports. Much of this is destined for food production, with Friends of the Earth estimating that as many as one in ten supermarket products contain palm oil.

More than 100 UK companies either import, invest in, or buy palm oil. These include several major food companies whose products are ubiquitous: Allied Bakeries, Northern Foods, Rank-Hovis MacDougal (RHM), Warburtons, Cadbury Schweppes and Nestle - to name but a few.

But the use of palm oil reaches further than just a few proprietary food brands. Companies such as Northern Foods supply many of the leading supermarkets with both branded and own-brand products, including biscuits, cakes, puddings, pastries, savoury products and pizzas.

The name 'palm oil' may or may not appear in the ingredients list - it is often described under the generic term 'vegetable oil', so it is very hard for a consumer to opt out of the chain of destruction.

Currently, manufacturers are not obliged to say what kind of vegetable oil they use, nor do many of them trace the source of their palm oil. And we have found not a single product that labels the source of its palm oil ingredients, or assures consumers that the oil comes from non-destructive sources.

Sea fish and orang-utans are a call to action!

Consumers have little incentive or information to avoid foods whose production destroys wildlife and habitats, and threatens the very food system we all rely on. Kath Dalmeny asks: how can sustainable choices ever become the norm?

Strategies to promote products from environmentally friendly sources often focus on using a logo to signal which products are a better choice. However, even if consumers were to be presented with information about the effects of their purchases on orang-utan populations or fish stocks, would this be enough to persuade most people to shift to more sustainable products?

Can a logo communicate complicated issues? And even if enough consumers were persuaded to shift their choices voluntarily, would they do so with the kind of speed that is now required? They would have to do so permanently – never again to make unsustainable purchases.

Most organisations concerned with the ethics of food production agree that the main impetus for a shift to more sustainable products is unlikely to come from consumers. Connections between foods and their environmental effects are just too complicated, and anyway invisible at the point of purchase.

Unsustainable products are currently priced and described as if they are a positive choice – no warning labels link products to the destruction of forests and sea-life. The alternatives are poorly understood or promoted, and most people do not link custard creams or cod steaks to distant forests and underwater habitats.

Seeking a secure future for forests and marine life, and protection for the livelihoods of forest peoples and small fishing communities, campaigners now point firmly to the need for total bans on the most unsustainable products and industrial forestry/fishing practices. They also call urgently for the establishment of protected marine and forest reserves to ensure that large enough numbers of plants and animals survive to ensure breeding populations and sufficient diversity for a healthy ecosystem.

Such policies would require international agreements and policing of reserves on an unprecedented scale, supported by enormous political and financial commitment. They would also need to provide opportunities for local people to make a living in a way that is permanently in keeping with the goals of habitat and wildlife conservation.

There is also a growing understanding among campaign organisations that such goals can only be achieved by systems that generate added value for conservation-friendly products, and which can verify sustainability throughout the ever-more-complex supply chain of a globalised market.

Certification schemes offer an approach that could provide financial backing for orang-utan friendly palm oil and fish-friendly fishing techniques. They are more than just a logo to convince consumers to buy a product. They are just as significant for the manufacturers and retailers themselves – a way of making sustainability a requirement throughout complex supply chains.

The Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) are widely respected certification systems associated with food and household products. The rules are governed by not-for-profit organisations that work to match human needs with the capacity of natural systems to produce materials and food ingredients. Crucially, they are open to scrutiny and are continually developing – there is no place here for shallow and temporary ‘assurance schemes’ that do little more than rubber-stamp weak rules for environmental protection.

There is also a growing understanding that market-based solutions are needed to create a reliable income for people – especially those in poor countries – whose livelihoods depend on natural wealth found in the oceans and forests.

Certifying bodies now recognise that if they engage forest-dwellers and fishing communities in the process of conservation, especially by offering them reliable incomes and preferential fishing and farming rights based on conservation management plans, then they themselves will be partners in the defence of natural resources on which their livelihoods depend. But trust must be built: communities must understand the value of the natural resources they rely on, and receive commensurate reward for protecting them on all our behalves. Oceans may then remain rich and permanent sources of human food.

Three mainstream UK supermarkets are so far credited as leading the way on providing fish from more sustainable and certified supplies. Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and Sainsbury's are widely recognised as taking a pro-active approach to sustainable fisheries, setting the pace in a competitive sector.

Waitrose, for example, sources Icelandic fish, where bottom-trawling is banned. As leading US oceanographer Sylvia Earle explains, 'Trawling is like bulldozing a forest to catch songbirds' – it is an industrialised fishing technique that cuts gargantuan swathes through underwater landscapes, with nets big enough to contain several jumbo jets. If ecosystem destruction at this scale were visible above the waves, it would be an international scandal. M&S therefore favours less intensive line-caught cod. Meanwhile, Sainsbury's is the only supermarket to have set a goal of 100 per cent MSC-certified fish, by 2010.

However, where does this leave the other supermarkets? Is it enough simply to accept ethical fish-buying standards from just a few retailers whilst others continue to encourage the rest of us to eat our way through dwindling fish stocks? What good will that be to future generations?

The way forward for palm-oil production is less clear. Supermarkets have only just begun to wake up to the ramifications of removing this ingredient from so many products, or of replacing it with a sustainable alternative. Environmental organisations such as the WorldWide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Friends of the Earth urge companies to engage with the international Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil – a meeting place for all those concerned about wildlife, livelihoods of people in poor countries, and the manufacture of food and other products.

Supermarkets need to set targets for phasing out unsustainable palm oil, communicate this to their suppliers, and invest in alternative sources. They cannot wait for consumers to wake up to the destruction of whole ecosystems.

Useful resources

The new environmental reports referred to in this feature are:

Fishing for good

Like shooting fish in a barrel

The oil for apes scandal

See also:

The Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC)

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)