The global rate of deforestation has fortunately halved over the past 25 years. Despite this encouraging trend, consumers need to take a proactive stand to help curb further losses.
Deforestation around the globe
In May 2016, Norway became the first country to adopt a zero deforestation policy by ensuring that its public procurement policies do not contribute to deforestation. This move follows years of lobbying by a group known as the Rainforest Foundation Norway.
Lush and highly biodiverse, the planet’s tropical rainforests are threatened in many areas of the world by human activities. Increasingly, rainforest loss is linked to large industrial-scale operations rather than subsistence-shifting cultivation practices. Rainforest loss contributes to climate change via releases of the greenhouse gases CO2 and methane.
Deforestation-free supply chains have been established for a range of commodities, and some third-party environmental certification systems are in place, but as ever, it is important for ethical consumers to vigilantly look out for companies providing misleading information about their environmental responsibility, or ‘greenwash’.
Preventing greenwash with certification
Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) certification applies to timber, wood products and paper. Despite being the most credible scheme in the marketplace, FSC rules for tropical regions do allow some logging of old-growth rainforests, and this has understandably attracted some criticism. Figures such as primatologist Jane Goodall have called for consumers to avoid all wood sourced from tropical forests. Several, generally small, environment groups have withdrawn their support from the FSC in recent years.
Greenpeace has dismissed other less stringent timber standards such as the PEFC as being industry-led, and for incorporating a mixture of responsible and unsustainable practices.
Probably the best timber choice is to purchase a FSC-certified product from Australia. License codes can be checked by entering them into the FSC certificate database at http://info.fsc.org
For paper, the ideal solution is to buy 100 percent recycled; with as high a post-consumer recycled content as possible where this is stated. After recycled paper, second-best is to look for FSC certification.
The American NGO Rainforest Alliance has its own certification system, featuring a green frog symbol, for a wide range of food and non-food products. This covers a range of issues including deforestation, other environmental considerations, and benefits to workers. Downsides include the FSC-linked timber certification, permission to use the logo where only thirty per cent of an ingredient is certified, and the possibility that certification applies to just one ingredient rather than to the whole product.
Palm oil and sustainability
Palm oil is widely found in food and personal care products. The enormous growth in this industry over such a small space of time has resulted the deforestation of previously untouched rainforest to make way for new palm oil plantations.
Currently, palm oil is not required to be labelled as such in Australia. The 2011 Labelling Logic: Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy report recommended that additional sugars and vegetable oils in food be labelled individually. However, following a meeting of Australian and New Zealand ministers in November 2016, the recommendation has still not yet been implemented, and is pending ‘further work to consider the potential impacts’. Until then, a precautionary approach would assume that it may be found in all generic ‘vegetable oil’.
One avenue adopted by some consumers is to avoid palm oil and its derivatives such as those found in soap. Another is to demand certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO), produced under a system that precludes production on recently cleared high conservation value forest land, but which does allow for the loss of regrowth forests.
The CSPO logo has a green palm leaf with writing around the outside and ‘RSPO’ at the bottom. Products may contain the logo, and if not, it is worth asking the companies involved whether their palm oil is certified. A less credible option is the GreenPalm offset-based system that is used by some companies claiming sustainability for their palm oil.
Good news about soya
For soya, which is used for candle wax and biodiesel in addition to a wide range of food products, there is a small amount of good news. In 2006, Brazil began a moratorium on the cultivation of soya beans on recently deforested land, and this marked its tenth anniversary this year. For neighbouring Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia, soya-driven deforestation remains a serious problem.
In terms of moves towards sustainable cultivation, the Round Table on Responsible Soy has set up its own certification system, but at present certified soya appears to be hard to track down with confidence. When looking at how to cut down on unsustainable soya intake, it is important to realise that about 70-90 per cent of global production goes to feed animals and fish. Some of Australia’s soya animal feed is domestically grown, but much is imported. Australian-grown soya ingredients are GM-free, and avoid the likely use of GM in their imported counterpart.
The role of consumers
The global rate of deforestation, most of which has been taking place in the tropics, has fortunately halved over the past 25 years. Despite this encouraging trend, consumers need to take a proactive stand to help curb further losses.
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore.
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