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Burger King drops Indonesian palm oil from menu

Citing environmental concerns, growing list of companies stops sourcing Indonesian palm oil.

Palm oil
A young palm oil tree at the vast palm oil plantation of PT SMART, the palm oil unit of Sinar Mas, in Ketapang district in West Kalimantan province on Borneo island.(Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Few people who have scoffed down fries at Burger King have likely given any thought to what they’ve been sizzling in.

The answer is palm oil, something Burger King has found problematic of late.

Palm oil has long been one of the most ubiquitous commodities that no one has ever heard of. It’s in everything from cooking oil to soaps to biscuits — 50 percent of all packaged supermarket products according to environmental groups. Thanks to that booming demand, prices are surging, and palm oil is emerging from obscurity — but not without controversy.

In Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil producer, the issue is land clearing. In the late 1960s, less than 800 square miles were under oil palm cultivation. By the start of this century, it was more than 11,000 square miles, a figure that continues to increase.

On the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo, where palm oil production is most common, environmentalists say that companies clearing and burning forests to make way for palm oil plantations are releasing so much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere that Indonesia now ranks, by some estimates, as the world’s third-largest emitter after the United States and China.

And so a growing list of international companies, most recently Burger King, are severing ties with one of Indonesia’s largest palm oil producers, a subsidiary of agribusiness giant Sinar Mas, called PT Smart, which Greenpeace has accused of illegally destroying large tracts of rainforest and peatland to make way for palm plantations.

Bustair Maitar, Greenpeace’s forest campaigner in Indonesia, said producers here tend to favor clearing fresh tracts of forests rather than making their own plantations more efficient. In bureaucratically opaque and corruption-plagued Indonesia, this frequently means bending, breaking or skirting the law.

“What’s happening now is that companies are not trying to minimize the impact. What they are trying to do is just expand their plantations with land grabs to force up production of palm oil now and in the future,” Maitar said.

Naming and shaming companies, however, is proving to be an efficient strategy. Sinar Mas said an independent audit refutes the accusations — but both environmentalists and the auditors themselves say the company has misrepresented the findings. As a result, Burger King dropped Sinar Mas as a supplier of palm oil — joining a list of companies that includes Unilever, Nestle and Kraft.

“Companies don’t want to associate themselves with illegality, wherever they source their product,” Maitar said.

Although palm oil has also been touted by some as a cheap source of biofuel, critics of its environmental toll are growing in numbers. Late last year, the World Bank’s private investment arm, the International Finance Corporation, announced it was suspending funding and investment assistance for palm oil projects. The Finance Corporation’s palm oil policy is now under review, and advocates for the crop fear such squeamishness could be permanent.