Despite Deforestation Concerns, Cargill Continues Business with Major Palm Oil Company

By: Nick Engelfried 

September 7, 2010

In the last few years, major food companies have been under increasing pressure from environmentalists to change or alter or abandon their policies regarding use of the common food ingredient palm oil.  Found in packaged food products form health foods to candy bars, palm oil—also known as “palm nut oil” or “palm kernel oil” is produced by a certain type of palm tree now grown on plantations throughout the tropical world. 

According to environmental groups, the expansion of palm oil plantations is eating away at the world’s last undisturbed tropical forests, adding to global warming while endangering hundreds of plant and animal species.  Plantation expansion has been particularly rapid in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, leading environmental groups to focus their efforts in these areas.  Iconic animal species at risk of extinction due to palm oil expansion include the Sumatran rhinoceros, sun bear, and orangutan, among others.

In response to public pressure a growing list of companies—from Unilever to Nestle—have promised to adopt policies that get unsustainable palm oil out of their food products.  Most of these market players have pledged to avoid sourcing ingredients from the Indonesian palm oil and timber company Sinar Mas, which has grown notorious for clearing rainforests in order to make room for palm oil plantations. 

Yet Cargill, one of the world’s most powerful food corporations, has so far declined to cut ties with Sinar Mas.  After offering earlier this year to revisit its palm oil policy, Cargill recently announced it would not be discontinuing business after with the controversial Indonesian company after all.  Nonprofit organizations like the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) immediately criticized this decision as irresponsible. 

Cargill’s resolve to continue buying palm oil from Sinar Mas comes even in the face of a report released by Greenpeace, which documents the company’s irresponsible forestry practices.  According to Greenpeace, Sinar Mas has consistently violated human rights and forest protection laws by clearing tracts of Indonesian rainforest without a permit and illegally displacing small farmers throughout the country.  

The report’s release early this year helped convince food and beverages giant Nestle to abandon ties with Sinar Mas.  However Cargill, formerly a Nestle supplier itself, has declined to follow suit.  “Other companies are relying on Cargill to start supplying sustainable palm oil to the US market,” said Ashley Schaffer of the Rainforest Action Network.  “This announcement from Cargill is a sign that they’ll have to look elsewhere.”

RAN has been pressuring Cargill to re-evaluate its palm oil policy since 2007, and expressed frustration that the company is still not responding.  RAN organizers plan to continue shining a light on Cargill’s involvement in activities that destroy rainforests, until this major food corporation decides to change its ways. 

Photo credit: Ben Sutherland

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