General Mills announced a revised palm oil sourcing policy last Friday, joining the growing movement of companies that have taken steps to clean their supply chains from deforestation. Meanwhile, Procter & Gamble is still lagging behind and backing their sustainability commitment with a certification scheme - the RSPO - that has been proven to not prevent deforestation. Recently, Greenpeace has published the results of a 12 month investigation showing that orangutan habitat has been cleared on concessions linked to members of the RSPO.
But General Mills' new revised policy needs to be looked at with caution, as it's still not strong enough to stop deforestation.
That's because it fails to define what deforestation is.
It might sound silly at first, but have you ever attempted to define deforestation? Try it...
Is it cutting any tree, no matter where it is? Or is it cutting only the most lush of native forests? Does it apply to small forest fragments or only large and continuous swaths of forest? If the forest has been destroyed years ago but has recovered a little, can it be destroyed again? If so, how little is too little? What if animals live in those forests? What animals? Ants and worms? Orangutans and tigers? What if there are important tree species there?
Then there are the rights and livelihoods of the people living in those areas to consider.
Defining deforestation is a very complex task, with carbon and climate, biodiversity and social implications. However moving forward on this task is critical as deforestation is happening as we speak. On the palm oil scene, this means defining what areas will be set aside for conservation or community use and what areas may be converted into plantations.
But we are getting there. There is an approach that it being applied globally – called High Carbon Stock (HCS) – and is the only credible one available to implement No Deforestation.
Greenpeace, along with palm oil producer and trader Golden Agri Resources, TFT and SMART, have developed the HCS approach over the last three years, including several expert reviews and stakeholder consultations. The HCS approach combines carbon and biodiversity conservation, as well as community rights and livelihoods. Only areas that contain low carbon, such as shrubs and grass lands could be considered for conversion into plantations. This means that areas with young regenerating forest and secondary forest, which contain more carbon and biodiversity, are tagged for conservation.
The figure below explains it better:
Of course there are tonnes of details to be considered. The HCS approach integrates and builds on the results of High Conservation Value (HCV) assessments that identify important conservation values that should be protected. You can find more about HCV here and HCS here. As you can see on those links, a lot has been done already to define those methodologies.
Greenpeace believes that the combination of HCV and HCS, as well as protection of all peatlands and consent and respect for local communities, should form the basis that guides the process around the conservation of forest or their conversion into palm oil plantations.
Now back to General Mills policy.
The company published its first palm oil sourcing policy in 2010 and since supported "a moratorium on the destruction of high-conservation value forests, and/or high-carbon value landscapes”. But because it relied only on the RSPO and didn't define what it meant by high carbon value landscapes, it couldn't enforce its policy and deforestation continued.
In its newly announced revision, General Mills strengthened its approach and committed only to buy palm oil that does not come from development on high conservation value landscapes, high carbon stock forests, or peat lands and to engage with communities. In theory, this is great. But instead of adopting the HCS approach that's already developed and being implemented globally by a number of major companies, General Mills statement ignores it and calls for the urgent development of definitions.
But what happens while this new definition is still being developed? This is the classic recipe for talk and deforest. With tiger and orangutan populations on the decline, it’s important that deforestation stops now and that General Mills commits to this.
By adopting the existing HCS approach, even considering that there will be ongoing expert review, trials and fine-tuning to further improve it, General Mills' suppliers will not cut down any carbon and biodiversity rich forests. It's important to remember. Destroying a natural forest is easy. Recovering is next to impossible.
If I was an orangutan, I would be concerned.
Joao Talocchi is a forest campaigner at Greenpeace USA