Archives For Food

Eating Asia’s Forests

Lisa Genasci —  October 20, 2012 — 4 Comments

View of palm oil plantation in Cigudeg, Bogor

palm oil plantation

Most of us don’t realize that many of the products we use, the foods we eat are causing deforestation on a massive scale in Southeast Asia and are devastating to our planet’s biodiversity.

The culprit is palm oil, which is a key ingredient in many common foods, shampoos, soap and pet products, lubricants, pesticides and paints.  It even helps fuel our cars.

Palm oil has become a silent part of our everyday lives and accounts for 30 percent of world vegetable oil. And that’s how it’s usually identified on the list of ingredients – as vegetable oil so we often don’t even know what we are using.

Our consumption of the versatile lipid is soaring.  Demand is predicted to more than double by 2030 and to triple by 2050. China is the biggest consumer of palm oil, importing 18 per cent of global supply.

In Indonesia and Malaysia, forests are being cleared at an alarming rate, estimated at 2 million hectares a year, wiping out endangered species such as the orangutan, the black sun bear, the Sumatran tiger and many others.  The two countries produce 90 percent of the world’s palm oil.

A new study by Stanford and Yale researchers estimates that 75 percent of deforestation in Indonesia was directly attributable to land use changes, from forestry to plantation. The study was released this month and published in the journal Nature Climate Change

Indonesia already has 8 million hectares of oil palm plantations, but has plans for another four million by 2015 dedicated to biofuel production alone. In total, the country produced more than 23 million tonnes of biofuels last year and is setting aside 18 million hectares to produce much more.

Malaysia in 2011 produced 18.9 million tonnes of palm oil on nearly 5 million hectares and was the second largest producer of palm oil.

Beyond feeding our snack habit, another challenge for forests is that governments are pushing to increase the use of biofuel, which ironically is seen as a quick fix to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the EU By 2020, 10 per cent of fuel will be biofuel, while China expects 15 per cent of its fuel to be grown in fields.

But in both Indonesia and Malaysia, in order to plant palm oil, often carbon-rich peatlands are being drained and then burned, releasing stored C02 into atmosphere already clogged with greenhouse gases from razing dry land forests. This represents possibly more carbon emissions than burning fossil fuels.

English: Deforestation and forest burning for ...

And not infrequently palm oil plantations are just an excuse for clearing forest because the profits associated with sales of tropical timber are substantial. In this case, companies seek concessions and access to land that is forested but don’t ever bother to plant palm oil.

We might think that forest and peat swamp loss in Southeast Asia sounds bad but it’s far away so why do we care?

We care for many reasons.  But if we are thinking purely about self-interest, the effects of forest loss can be seen globally in changing climate patterns and erratic weather.

Forest cutting is responsible for 17 per cent of global carbon emissions, meaning this is the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and equal to emissions for the entire global transport sector. It is also comparable to the total annual CO2 emissions of the US or China, according to the UK Eliasch Review, “Climate Change, Financing Global Forests”.

If the international community does nothing to reduce deforestation, modeling for the Eliasch Review estimates that the global economic cost of climate change alone caused by deforestation could reach $1 trillion a year by 2100.

Beyond the effects of climate change from deforestation, we look to forests as sources of vital biodiversity.

Estimates are that nearly half of the world’s species of plants, animals and microorganisms will be destroyed or severely threatened over the next 25 years because of rainforest deforestation. As rainforest species disappear, so do many possible cures for disease.

At least 120 prescription drugs sold worldwide come from plant-derived sources. While 25% of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest ingredients, less than 1% of tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists. We just don’t know enough about the significance of forests to sit back while they disappear.

Locally, the consequences of deforestation on such massive scale are even more immediate.  Forests help regulate regional rainfall, offer defense from floods, maintain soils and their moisture, and generally offer ecosystem services crucial for maintaining life and livelihoods. Globally, an estimated 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their welfare and livelihoods to one degree or another.

So is it worth it to eat that biscuit, that chocolate, choose a shampoo that contains palm oil and how do we know if it’s not even labeled?

The rule is that if the label shows the saturated fat content is close to 50%, there is a good chance that the vegetable oil will in fact be palm oil. Among those items that should be immediately suspect are biscuits, processed foods, chocolates and snacks.

Other key tip-offs that a food item might contain palm oil listed among ingredients are cocoa butter equivalent (CBE), cocoa butter substitute (CBS), palm olein and palm stearine.

When looking at ingredients in non-food products such as soaps and detergents, those that contain palm oil include: elaeis guineensis, sodium lauryl sulphate, cetyl alcohol, stearic acid, isopropyl and other palmitates, steareth-2, steareth-20 and fatty alcohol sulphates.

Next time you reach for a snack, paint a wall or fill up your car, do your best to make sure palm oil isn’t an ingredient or at least that the brand claims to use oil from sustainable sources.

There are many issues around what makes palm oil sustainable as well as the industry body, the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) itself, but this is at least a step in the right direction.

We know that our oceans play a critical role in assuring human wellbeing, providing food, livelihoods and recreation as well as helping to regulate global climates.

We also know that our oceans are in trouble, with many marine species headed for extinction. Ocean acidification, rising sea temperatures, rising sea levels, hypoxia, overuse of marine resources and pollution rank among the greatest challenges. All of these are well-discussed in a Stockholm Environment Institute study, Valuing the Ocean, which makes an important argument for valuing and protecting ocean services.

But how do we gauge the health of our oceans and marine resources – a daunting task given the many interlinked and complex benefits and threats?

Recently responding to this question, a broad group of marine conservationists and scientists released the Ocean Health Index,which is a sort of marine GDP, reflecting the health of our marine environments and how sustainably we are using them.

An account of the Index was published in the Aug. 30th issue of Nature.

The groundbreaking tool is not just a measure of how pristine the waters of any country might be, but rather considers how we humans benefit from our marine ecosystems and how our oceans are faring globally in terms of provision of services to us.

In search of baseline measures, scientists and marine experts calculated standards for the many ways we use the ocean. It comprises ten goals for a healthy human–ocean system in the waters of a country’s exclusive economic zone, which usually stretch 200 mile offshore.

The index now offers hard numbers to show how close or far each  coastal country is to balanced use of the Big Blue.

The country goals for a balanced marine environment include clean water, food provision, carbon capture, biodiversity, coastal protection, recreational opportunities, artisanal fisheries, support of local economies, and a “sense of place.”

Globally, the overall index score was 60 out of 100, with developed countries largely performing better than developing countries. Only 5% of countries scored higher than 70, while 32% scored lower than 50.

Rather predictably, while northern European countries tended to score highly, much of  West Africa, for example, did not score so well.

Researchers hope the Ocean Health Index will build awareness of the state of the world’s ocean, and work as a catalyst and guide for business and government decision-makers to develop effective policies promoting ocean health.

Researchers intend to release an updated version annually that responds to  new data that will overtime refine the index.

The Ocean Health Index was developed with the contributions of more than 65 ocean experts including the National Center for Ecological Analysis and the Synthesis and the University of British Columbia’s Sea Around Us project. Founding partners are Conservation International, The National Geographic Society and The New England Aquarium.

Reprinted from the South China Morning News, January 16, opinion written by Sophie Le Clue, ADMCF’s director of environmental programs:

In one sense, 2011 was a good year for sharks. The movement in Asia against consuming shark fin gained momentum against a
backdrop of new legislation to ban the trade in California as well as several Canadian cities. In a domino effect, shark sanctuaries were declared worldwide, covering thousands of square kilometers.

In China, the business community also rallied against shark fin. To date, 142 business leaders including chairmen and chief
executives of leading companies such as Lenovo, Haier and China Merchants Bank pledged not to eat it, while hotels and clubs have committed to not serving the infamous soup.

On the government side, in 2011 45 members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference signed the “Motion on
Development of Regulations on Prohibiting Shark Fin Trade”. Some members of the National People’s Congress also signed the
motion, which will be considered by the government later this year.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels Group’s surprising and insightful move to ban the product across all outlets, including its famed Peninsula hotels, was perhaps a fitting end to the year.

Despite these moves, there is a long way to go. There are enormous challenges to implementing regulatory controls and many shark populations globally remain endangered, some threatened with extinction in the near future.

As a result, eyes are now firmly on Hong Kong, the centre of the global shark fin trade and itself a driving force in declining shark
populations.Yet it seems resolute in enabling such ecologically important endangered species to be traded with little regulatory control.

Approximately 10,000 tonnes of shark fin from millions of sharks are imported into Hong Kong every year with virtually no regulation as to species. According to some estimates, this equates to around half of the global trade.

To provide context: of the 507 shark species, only 256 have been assessed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) to determine their conservation status and of these, 56 per cent, or 143 species, have been identified as threatened with extinction, either now or in the near future. Many of these species are freely traded in Hong Kong.

Last year, questions by legislators on the topic of shark fin met with the standard response: that the government adheres strictly to Cites (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) requirements.

Quite why this prevents the government from regulating trade in endangered species not under Cites remains to be seen.
The paradox, however, is startling. Cites was drafted as a result of a resolution adopted in 1963 at an IUCN meeting and came into force as an international agreement in 1975.

By placing trade restrictions on species at risk, it aims to ensure that the international trade in wild animals and plants does not
threaten their survival. Yet it only includes three species of shark, despite valiant efforts to introduce several others in 2010,
when countries with vested interests in the trade, such as Japan, reportedly bargained with fellow signatories to ensure that highly lucrative shark species – albeit critically endangered – were not included in the convention’s regulatory appendices.

Science and sustainability, the cornerstone of conservation, clearly gave way to commercial interests. For sharks at least, Cites is failing. So when an administration such as Hong Kong hides behind its Cites’ commitment in response to questions about the shark trade, despite the convention’s obvious failings, we know we are in troubled waters.

We can only hope that the next chief executive will have more foresight. Hong Kong remains a gateway to the shark fin trade in
Asia; with a little vision it could make eating shark fin history and have a major impact on an issue of global significance.

Yesterday the Shangri-La  took the courageous step of declaring that effective immediately, the group’s 72 hotels and resorts would no longer serve shark fin in any restaurants or at wedding banquets.

The announcement falls under the company’s new sustainable seafood policy, which also includes a decision to phase-out Bluefin tuna and Chilean sea bass in all hotel restaurants within the year.

In a press release, the hotel said that in December 2010 the company initiated the process of becoming shark fin free with the removal of shark fin products from its restaurant menus. “The new policy is a continuation of Shangri-La’s journey towards environmental support,” the release said

This follows the Peninsula Hotel’s decision in November last year to stop serving the soup in its restaurants and at wedding banquets as of January 1st this year.

The hotels should be applauded for their actions, which were not easy in a city that sees 50 percent of the global shark fin trade and where consumption of the soup at special events has been second-nature. Here, shark fin soup is seen as a symbol of wealth and  prestige and consumed most often at weddings and corporate banquets.

Yet as the consumption of the soup has increased in recent years with greater affluence in Asia, shark populations have dwindled.  In some species. populations have declined by as much as 90 percent. As many as 73 million sharks are caught annually, with millions of these believed caught for their fins alone.

Shark flesh is not a  high-value meat, while dried fins can be sold for as much as $300 a pound. A bowl of the soup in Hong Kong can fetch as much as $100. Thus is some cases, shark are finned at sea  with the bodies thrown back to drown in a practice that is both wasteful and cruel.

Bloom, the HK Shark Foundation, WWF and other conservation groups have been working hard in Hong Kong over the past few years to educate consumers and the trade about the ramifications of declining shark populations for our oceans.

The work has included research to understand both the cultural attitudes toward consumption of shark fin soup and the trade in shark products;  educating the hotels on biodiversity issues related to sharks and learning about the challenges of ceasing sales of shark products; encouraging consumers to consider shark fin free weddings; encouraging companies to sign a pledge not to serve shark fin soup at banquets.

Despite a swell action from local and national governments worldwide to ban consumption of shark fin products, the Hong Kong government (consistent with its course of rarely acting in public or conservation interest) has refused to consider any such action – even a ban on serving at official banquets.

In reality, the assumption is that because of the cost, little shark fin soup is actually served at official banquets in Hong Kong and indeed government officials have alluded to this.

Certainly, however, with the growing awareness around threats faced by our oceans, the sense of inevitability of action as shark populations decline, the government must now be feeling the heat.

Last week the HK Marine Products Association was certainly feeling the heat. The trade group placed half-page ads in leading Chinese publications titled (in English translation) “Is eating Shark Fin Guilty?” and arguing  that

  • Shark fin is simply a by-product of the shark fishing industry
  • CITES bans trade in only four species therefore fishing should be allowed in others
  • Any conservation of a species should be based on scientific evidence not emotion
  • States  the MPA uses resources sustainably and contributes to conservation

Clearly, shark fins, for reasons stated above are not by-products of any shark fishing industry and clearly conservation of a species should be based in scientific fact, which exists and is documented: sharks are in significant decline.We would welcome any communication from the MPA related to their sustainable practices and conservation work.

The CITES issue mentioned in the ads is an interesting one and is raised frequently by the MPA, as well as both the HK and Beijing governments, which hide behind the treaty. The main point here is that CITES is not effective in protecting shark species globally and should not be used, counter-intuitively, as a a justification to fish endangered

CITES was drafted as a result of a resolution adopted in 1963 at an IUCN (The World Conservation Union) meeting and entered into force in 1975 as an international agreement. Today, it has 175 signatories.

Its aim: to ensure that the international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. The CITES mechanism to achieve this is by placing trade restrictions on species at risk. The Convention is, therefore, undoubtedly an important wildlife conservation agreement.

Yet CITES only includes three species of shark, despite that according to IUCN 143 species are threatened with extinction, either now or in the near future.

So why should a conservation agreement exclude threatened species? The answer lies in the fact that for a species to be bought under CITES trade restrictions, the signatories must vote.

In 2010, for example, six shark species were proposed for inclusion in CITES. Countries with vested interests in the shark trade, such as Japan, bargained with fellow signatories to ensure that highly lucrative species, albeit critically endangered, were not included in the Convention’s regulatory appendices. Science and sustainability clearly gave way to commercial interests.

In Hong Kong, CITES remains the only mechanism for regulating the shark fin trade and to make matters worse its implementation is unclear.

The Agricultural, Fishery and Conservation Department (AFCD) of the Hong Kong government is responsible for monitoring the trade in endangered plant and animal species.

Currently, visual identification is a commonly used to identify imported plants or animal species. While this may be appropriate for many species, it is extremely difficult, in practice, to determine the shark species from a fin without the carcass, and even more difficult if the fin has been bleached or processed. It is understood that AFCD do not carry out any DNA analysis.

Thus, CITES clearly is not an effective mechanism to monitor the shark fin trade in Hong Kong.

Scientific research based on DNA testing shows that in 2006 approximately 40% of the auctioned fin weight in the Hong Kong market came from 14 shark species listed on the IUCN Redlist of Threatened species.

So bravo to the Shangri-La and the Peninsula hotels for taking action, the 112 companies in Hong Kong that have signed the WWF pledge not to sell or buy shark fin as part of their corporate activities.

Going shark free is a groundswell here and abroad that we certainly hope will continue in time to save the apex predators and our oceans.

Today is World Ocean Day and marine conservation organization, Bloom, seized the opportunity to launch a playful new short film, “A Shark’s Fin.”

Half animation and half live-interview format, the film tries to lightheartedly illustrate the problem with eating shark fin soup and let people know just what that apparently simple act of consumption means for our oceans.

Made by Hong Kong writer director, Crystal Kwok, executive produced by Elaine Marden and featuring actor Michael Wong as well as two adorable Hong Kong primary school students, the film targets the younger audience, with the view that they will educate their parents.

Please share the film – the more views, the more education and hopefully fewer bowls of shark fin soup will be consumed.

Remember, 73 million sharks are killed each year, mostly to  satisfy demand for shark fin soup and 50 percent of the global trade passes through Hong Kong. We can take a stand: Honor our oceans by refusing to eat shark fin soup before we lose  the majestic predators to extinction.

 

Sunday's Freezemob in TST, Hong Kong

This blog was written by the director of ADMCF’s environment program, Sophie Le Clue

At the end of April, this blog highlighted research by HK Bloom Association into cultural attitudes to shark fin, which showed that Hong Kong is clearly ready for change when it comes to taking shark fin off food menus, despite the cultural sensitivity.  During May the research went on to receive global media coverage being reported from the New York Times to Louisiana’s Bayou Buzz in the US, to the Telegram in Australia and the Bangkok Post in Thailand (to name a few)– not to mention widespread coverage across blogs and websites.

In an even earlier blog we illustrated that momentum against sharkfin in HK was building , and what’s clear now is that these efforts are intensifying across the world.

Just last week:

  • Washington became the first State in the United States to prohibit the sale, purchase, trade, and preparation of shark fins.  Similar legislation which is generating much controversy also looks imminent in California and Oregon.
  • In Malaysia, the State Cabinet agreed with the Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun on the immediate need to include sharks in Sabah waters in the protected species list –it’s hoped this will be in force by year end.
  • Sabah’s top hotels are already preparing for this leading conservation move and last week were reported to already be taking shark fin off menus – Hong Kong please take note… particularly in light of the Ritz Carlton’s recent  announcement that its brand new Hong Kong hotel indeed intends to serve dish – suffice to say Hong Kong’s very active and effective shark conservation organisations (see previous blog – Hong Kong Campaign Against Shark Fin Soup gathers Strength ) are building momentum against this move by the Ritz.
  • There were rumblings that Canada is also gearing up to enter the discussion.  Brantford, a seemingly sleepy city in Ontario, will be debating this week on enacting a bylaw to prohibit the sale and consumption of all shark fin products (finning is already banned in Canada, but not the trade).
  • Back to the US and Chinese basket ball superstar Yao Ming flew to Shanghai to receive WildAid’s International Ambassador award, in recognition of his public stand against shark fin in China.

 All of these actions follow an unprecedented move in China, when in March, deputy to the National People’s Congress, Ding Liguo, proposed to ban the trade in shark fin – citing the unsustainability of the practice as well as its brutal nature. There are also indications that the public display of eating shark fin by China’s elites as a sign of wealth is beginning to irk those higher up.

And of course Hong Kongers also need a mention.  Just yesterday at precisely 12.45am an eerie silence pervaded the “Avenue of Stars’ (a popular tourist destination on the harbor front) as 350 odd people ‘froze’ for five minutes in protest against the shark fin trade and consumption.  This second ‘Freezemob’ organized by the Hong Kong Shark Foundation (HKSF) witnessed a near doubling of numbers from the first such event last year.

 As tourists meandered in and out of 350 frozen statues curiously eyeing a variety of shark paraphernalia, behind them hundreds of fishing trawlers silently sailed into the harbour in protest against Hong Kong’s landmark trawling ban announced last week – a curious juxtaposition.

Perhaps Hong Kong will get it right and lead the way after all.

Last week we spent some days plowing through one of the most important areas of tropical rainforest in Borneo,  central Kalimantan’s Sabangau, looking for Orangutans, gibbons, Langurs and other primates as well as learning about the ecology of the peatland habitat.

For two days we started at 4:30 am in the dark, wearing headlamps, looking for the elusive apes. Although boards (built on a former logging railway) run for some kilometers through the 45-hectare grid within which the researchers we were visiting spend most of their time, much of the forest walking was through deep peat swamp that occasionally reached mid-thigh! See the photo above of  intrepid ADM Capital partner Robert Appleby taking the measure of the peat’s depth!

The walk, more often a run, as over hours we chased to reach the spot where a gibbon grouping or orangutan had been spotted by the Dayak or foreign teams working the forest, was often a challenge but incredibly rewarding nonetheless.   Seeing the majestic creatures in the wild was truly breathtaking. The gibbon photo above was taken by the OuTrop crew.

We were visiting Oxford Primatologist Dr. Susan Cheyne who along with other senior wildlife conservationists leads a team of young researchers working out of an old logging camp situated in the designated Sabangau “Natural Laboratory” about an hour and  a half by road, boat and foot from Palangka Raya. The Laboratory sits within the 500,000 hectare Sabangau National Park, which actually is not yet officially a national park.

This year ADMCF has provided support to Dr. Cheyne through Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Unit (WildCRU), which also backs the conservation and research effort. Dr. Cheyne and her team monitor the distribution, population status, behaviour and ecology of the forest’s primates, carry out biodiversity and forestry research, and work with local partners to implement conservation solutions.

The team is sponsored in Indonesia by the Center for International Cooperation in Sustainable Management of Tropical Peatland (CIMTROP), which is responsible for conservation of the important 50,000 hectare peatland forest.

That involves mostly ranging and firefighting, although there is also an ongoing effort to dam the many canals built through the forest that were used to transport the illegal logs to the river and are now drying up the swamp. Estimates are that the peatland, as deep as  19 meters in some spots, is sinking with the lowered water table and this of course threatens the trees and amazing wildlife, which is just beginning to recover from logging.

Sabangau was turned over to conservation  in the late 1990s after Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop) research managed to document the incredible biodiversity of the forest and establish clear records of substantial populations of primates, clouded leopards and other endangered species.

Previously Sabangau was a logging concession, although luckily it was only selectively cut. More destructive though was the illegal logging that followed in the late 1990s – when the canals were cut through the swamp and more of the forest was chopped. Still, the research team has shown that surprisingly primates are returning to the peatland forest, which also has regenerated well.

Estimates are that the Sabangau previously hosted populations of about 14,000 orangutans and 40,000 gibbons and now numbers of each are at about half that amount, according to Dr. Cheyne.

Along with Dr. Cheyne, two other senior OuTrop primate researchers work from the Setia Alam camp: Simon Husson and Helen Morrogh-Bernard, who were among the first to identify the orangutan populations in  Sabangau and set up the camp with CIMTROP early last decade. OuTrop has been excellent at attracting paying volunteers and research interns to help survey the primates and biodiversity in the peat forest. Each individual seems to play a strong role in helping to build a portrait of the unique ecology of Sabangau. Certainly, more help is always needed for this important work, which is critical to inform conservation and indeed learn about the behavior of the animals.

To illustrate the importance, previous research establishing that the populations of apes lived in the forest was enough to persuade the Indonesian government that the area should be conservation forest. Now, new research is showing that adult male orangutans might need much larger range areas than previously believed, while gibbon family groupings perhaps also need more dispersal space in order to establish healthy populations.

The teams also believe that because food (flowers and fruits)  in the acidic peat swamps is not as plentiful as in regular tropical forest, apes may develop sophisticated mental maps of so-called “destination trees” and return to these in season to maximize their travel efficiency. The concern is that if these large feeding trees disappear so will the feeders.

Out of curiosity, we visited Block C of the Mega-Rice project. Which was indeed a sorry sight: So many kilometers of barren land subject to annual and devastating fires on the peatland where nothing now grows but scrub.

In the last days of the Soeharto era, Indonesia’s corrupt leader apparently handed logging concessions equal to about 1.4 million hectares to two sons and declared an ambitious plan to convert the Kalimantan peatland forest into rice padi, to be farmed by migrant workers from Java. The idea was to make Indonesia self-sustainable in rice production.

But the Project was a failure because acidic peatland was completely unsuitable for growing rice. Huge canals were built in the peat, ostensibly to control water-levels but instead drained the once-flooded swamps. Of course, the sons profited handsomely from the logging concessions, which many believe was the real motivation behind the Project.

In a major drought in 1997 the peat dried out entirely, caught fire and burned for months. This resulted in a smoke haze that covered much of south-east Asia and released huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Burning forests in Indonesia are largely responsible for the country’s designation as the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

The former Mega-Rice area continues to burn annually during the dry season and is considered one of the world’s biggest environmental disasters. Luckily the Project was stopped before the Sabangau Forest itself was drained and cleared.