Palm oil - something we’ve all used. We’ve been using it for 5,000 years, apparently. We’ve all of us in this room already made use of it several times today, and it’s very likely to be in the food on the table next door. It’s high yielding, it’s versatile, it protects us from diseases, it’s cholesterol free… It sustains us, and it sustains the economies that produce it. In Indonesia the palm oil industry employs two million people.
But there’s a problem. A problem everyone in this room already understands. Palm oil plantations are expanding into natural forests and peatlands. They are the single greatest cause of permanent forest loss in South East Asia. Deforestation accounts for a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Most of you will have heard Pavan Sukdev’s speech earlier today about how to put an economic value on biodiversity and eco-systems. His report for businesses is being launched at this conference. This TEEB report estimates deforestation costs us between 2 and 5 trillion dollars every year in lost services.
So the environmental cost of palm oil production also an economic one. While the palm oil industry feeds the economy it also damages it. The costs already outweigh the benefits. And as demand for palm oil grows, in Europe, but also China, India and the rest of the world, the environmental costs will start to threaten our very future. Its sustenance is unsustainable.
So how do we retain the benefits and get rid of the costs? This is the question that needs urgent attention; from all of us.
As with other major commodities - fish, and timber, for example - private sector, public sector and NGOs must work together to turn the situation around, so that all palm oil is produced sustainably; without longterm environmental cost. And this effort needs the commitment and cooperation of the whole supply chain. That’s why this group is so exciting.
So I’m very pleased indeed to see all of you here today. Together you represent producers, refiners, importers and traders - from different parts of the world. And you are leaders within your companies, which is really encouraging. The discussions you have here today are an important step towards finding the answers to our question.
Of course, there has been progress already.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, of which you are all members, has been certifying palm oil for nearly two years. And many European companies have committed to all the palm oil they source being certified by 2015 or earlier. In May, the New Britain Palm Oil’s refinery opened in Liverpool, only dealing in certified sustainable palm oil. Which, along with other means, like ‘book and claim’ and mixed sourcing, will make it much easier for UK and European companies to meet their commitments.
While all the producers in this room - Kulim, LonSum, Musim Mas and others - have already had plantations certified by the Roundtable, and many of you are now working with your supply chains on sustainability improvements.
But commitments from other major markets in China, India and the US to sourcing sustainable palm are missing at present. And only around 4% of the global supply is currently certified.
So more needs to be done, and done quicker. Because the environmental cost of this product is frightening - and the damage too often irreversible.
Industry must play its part, and so must government. This month sees the launch of a project my department, Defra, is co-financing with the Chinese Chamber of Commerce; to develop the “business case” for sustainable palm oil in China and proposals on how to encourage the switch. There are big differences in the way Chinese businesses and European businesses operate, so the Chinese rationale for sourcing sustainably will to those in Europe. This project aims to provide the tools appropriate to China’s business culture: to help persuade the world’s largest consumer of palm oil to buy from sustainable sources.
In this country the Prime Minister has pledged that this government will be the greenest government ever. It’s not just a promise: it’s an imperative. Many people in the world are already paying the costs of the damage we are doing to our natural environment. And the damage we continue to inflict presents a grave danger to future generations.
The damage must stop. We are absolutely committed to tackling climate change, which includes stopping deforestation and the loss of peatlands. And we are committed to halting and reversing the decline in biodiversity. Neither of these would be possible unless we stop the damaging impacts of the products we consume; and unless we reverse the economic incentives in order to support sustainable production.
Which is why we have confirmed the pledges, made at the Copenhagen climate change conference, of £1.5bn from the UK for fast start climate finance through to 2012, of which £300m will be for forests.
Which is why we will continue to play a pivotal role in establishing the REDD+ Partnership - a platform for developed and developing countries to reduce deforestation together.
Which is why we have already played a pivotal role in the agreement of EU legislation to tackle illegal logging.
And which is why we are committed to helping the palm oil industry to become sustainable.
So today the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, will be announcing in the plenary session that we will start the process of mapping this country’s consumption of palm oil.
Working with businesses, we aim to map the palm oil supply chain to the UK, including what the public sector buys, and where from, to find out where we are using palm oil, what we are using it for, how we are sourcing it and how much is produced sustainably.
Working with companies like yourselves and with NGOs, we will be using our findings to produce a plan to help shift Britain’s sourcing of palm oil to a sustainable footing.
I’m delighted to be able to tell you about this work. And I’m delighted to be opening this meeting. The statement you have been working on for today could be a really powerful springboard for the mainstreaming of sustainable palm oil across supply chains.
So I urge you to aim high. Palm oil has been called a miracle product, nature’s gift to us. We must respect the giver, as well as the gift. Together we can create a truly sustainable industry - one that can last for many more thousands of years.