The `Oil for Ape Scandal', published today by Friends of the Earth (FoE) and leading orang-utan conservation groups, concludes that without urgent intervention the palm oil trade could cause the extinction of Asia's only great ape within 12 years.
Palm oil is found in a diverse range of products on our supermarket shelves including bread, crisps and margarine. The product is currently enjoying strong appeal as an ingredient because it is free of artery-clogging trans fats, formed when fats are hydrogenated to make them more solid and extend their shelf life.
In addition, the oil also continues to benefit from a growing awareness of the health properties of the antioxidant-rich oil.
According to the UK's Food and Drink Federation (FDF) over 95 million tonnes of vegetable oil are produced worldwide every year, of which 29 per cent is produced by the oil palm, the world's second largest oil crop after soy.
The problem, according to FoE, is that over 89 per cent of all palm oil is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia, and as a result almost 90 percent of the orang-utan's habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia has now been destroyed. Oil-palm plantations have become the primary cause of the orang-utans' decline, wiping out its rainforest home in Borneo and Sumatra.
Some experts estimate that 5,000 orang-utan perish as a result of such plantations every year. This, says the pressure group, must change, and the food industry must become better educated. Even though palm oil is used in one in ten supermarket products, most UK companies do not know where their palm oil comes from.
Friends of the Earth and orang-utan conservation groups are now calling on the UK Government to give company directors a legal duty to minimise their environmental impacts through the Company Law Reform Bill, which will have its first reading in Parliament later this year.
"Governments in countries like the UK that provide a market for palm oil must legislate to make their corporations responsible and accountable for their impacts," said Ian Redmond, chairman of the Ape Alliance.
"If not, it is we who will have to explain to our children that the orang-utan became extinct, not because of a lack of knowledge, but because of corporate greed and a lack of political will."
The FDF does not believe however that the palm oil issue can be effectively addressed through specific UK legislation. It argues that given the complex and global nature of the palm oil market and the fact that the UK imports only 3.2 per cent of the world's annual crop, sustainability initiatives would be most effective when undertaken at the international level.
To this end, the federation says that it supports active participation in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which aims to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil through co-operation within the supply chain and open dialogue with its stakeholders.
For Friends of the Earth, this is simply not enough because 'stakeholder' interests lie in direct conflict with the fight to ensure the survival of the orang-utan. The organisation claims that the forest fires that ravaged the island of Sumatra in August, and continue to burn today, were mostly set by palm oil companies clearing land to set up their plantations.
It is estimated that one third of the orang-utan population on Borneo was killed by the forest fires of 1998.
"The orang-utan is endangered because of habitat loss," said professor Biruté Galdikas, founder of the Orang-utan Foundation International.
"Today the greatest threat to orang-utan habitat is the continued expansion of oil-palm plantations. Palm oil is the greatest enemy of orang-utan and their continued survival in the wild."
Food firms look set to continue to exploit the growing popularity of palm oil. A new palm oil plant - the biggest in Europe - has just been constructed in the Dutch port of Rotterdam, and accetped its first 10,000 tonnes of crude palm oil earlier this month.Former Unilever subsidiary Loders Croklaan, now the property of Malaysian palm plantation owner IOI, said it hoped to process 2,500-3,000 tons of palm oil a day at the facility.