Fresh off yet another report that showed large companies have a long way to go before ensuring the global palm oil industry is more responsible and sustainable, Yum! Brands released a new palm oil policy. The purveyor of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell claimed it sought to remove palm oil for cooking in its restaurants by 2017. Now, the company says it will enact a plan to ensure its suppliers meet guidelines set by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Yum! Brands' policy is a step forward for the fast food industry, albeit a small one. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the United States’ fast food industry is lagging on palm oil sourcing and transparency. While Dunkin’ Brands has committed to a more robust palm oil supply chain program, other fast food companies are either vague about their commitments or have not disclosed a palm oil policy at all. A commitment from the likes of Yum! Brands would encourage its competitors to follow suit, therefore ending the environmental degradation and human rights violations that have marred the industry behind the world’s most consumed plant-based oil.
According to Yum! Brands, the company will draft a set of guidelines its suppliers must follow within two years. First, suppliers may not source palm oil from areas of high conservation value landscapes or high carbon stock forests — most of which are peatlands and swampy regions that serve as carbon sinks and release destructive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions when turned into palm oil plantations. Companies must also set traceability standards that go back as far as the oil extraction mill and include the validation of fresh fruit branches. Land rights must not be violated, and suppliers must also verify that they are following local laws and regulations.
UCS responded to Yum! Brands’ shift in policy with guarded optimism, praising the company for applying its new palm oil policy to all of its outlets across the world. One of the nonprofit’s analysts, however, noted that the company’s policy does not cover baked goods and sauces, which its various fast food chains purchase through a third-party vendor. UCS also urged Yum! Brands to be more transparent about the quantities of palm oil the company uses, as well as outline the steps it has taken toward implementing this new policy.
Anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of the world’s palm oil is sourced from Indonesia and Malaysia, which of course have borne most of the environmental destruction and social ills related to this industry. Rainforest Action Network estimates that at one point the amount of land converted from rain forest to palm oil plantations was equivalent to 300 soccer fields an hour. By 2025, 26 million hectares (over 100,000 square miles) in Indonesia could become palm oil plantations; currently that figure stands at 10 million hectares. In 1985, only 600,000 hectares (2,300 square miles) were devoted to the crop — demonstrating the explosive growth the palm industry has experienced in a generation.
As is the case with other high value, coveted crops — coffee, chocolate and even almonds — if these industries do not do a better job at self-regulation, they could face consumer backlash or fade away in another generation.
Image credit: Wagino 20100516
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.