Sunday, July 1, 2018

Letter to the Editor: Making A Ban On Single-Use Plastics Work


LETTER TO THE EDITOR
MAKING A BAN ON SINGLE-USE PLASTICS WORK

Our Minister of Housing and Local Government YB Datuk Zuraida Kamaruddin and Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow’s proposal to ban single-use plastic packaging for environmental reasons is a welcome move.

We have seen both within Malaysia and abroad that voluntary plastic bag reduction campaigns have not worked. Trying to engender voluntary change often means investing a lot of money into public education and outreach efforts for very low success rates. Statistics have shown that awareness does not always translate into a shift in consumer behaviour, even in developed nations such as the USA and Australia. For plastic waste reduction strategies to work, public education campaigns must be held together with plastic packaging bans. Behavioural change will take place only when a binding policy with a system of penalties and enforcement is in place.

It must be pointed out, however, that a nationwide ban on single-use plastic packaging can only begin to register positive results if the ban is extended to the retail sale of packaging and to fast food outlets, food courts, markets, hawkers, petty traders and businesses other than supermarkets and major retailers. Currently, plastic bags, disposable plastic tableware and styrofoam and plastic food packaging can still be purchased from supermarkets and retail stores. This defeats the purpose of banning free plastic bags and the sale of food in styrofoam packaging if consumers can still purchase these items cheaply off supermarket or shop shelves.

In fact, one of the major complaints by consumers following the Selangor State Government’s ban on polystyrene food packaging and free plastic bags in 2017 is that the ban is a financial burden on consumers since they now have to pay for the plastic bags and packaging by buying them from shops rather than obtaining them for free with every purchase. From this complaint, it is clear that the move has not resulted in sufficient behavioural and attitude change and has only resulted in consumers purchasing more packaging instead of giving up or using less plastic packaging for environmental reasons. To wean the nation off single-use plastics, we need to remove the option of being able to purchase single-use plastics cheaply and conveniently.

If the protection of wildlife and the natural environment is our objective in reducing plastic waste, then this policy must necessarily extend beyond plastic bags and also cover other single-use plastics including all styrofoam products, plastic drinking straws, plastic cup lids, plastic meat and produce trays, clingfilm, plastic cotton buds, disposable cutlery, food takeaway packaging and other environmentally harmful products such as plastic glitter and toiletries containing microbeads. Oxo-degradable plastic bags that are not truly compostable and biodegradable and non-woven shopping bags should also be banned, as they disintegrate into toxic petro-polymers and should not therefore be marketed or used as alternatives to conventional plastic bags. As long as these items are not included in the ban, it will be very difficult to mitigate the environmental damage caused by plastic bags.

To resolve the issue of consumers claiming that they now need to purchase rubbish bags since retailers are no longer giving out free plastic bags, we can introduce a policy allowing only the distribution of plastic bags above 20 micron (0.02 mm) in thickness and with a minimum capacity of 10 litres, the cost of which will be borne by consumers to increase the chances that these plastic bags are reused for storage and waste disposal, and are only purchased if necessary. Over time, conventional plastic bags and rubbish bags, including pet waste bags, should be phased out and banned and replaced with compostable bags that conform to compostability standards ASTM D6400 or EN 13432.

Retailers and manufacturers need to be given some time, for example, one year, to phase out the production, sale and distribution of single-use plastics. This will give both businesses and consumers time to make changes and source for alternatives. This will require regulations that will not only regulate the sale and distribution of plastic bags and other single-use plastics by retailers, but also regulations to stop fast food outlets and eateries from giving out plastic lids, straws and plastic cutlery for free, clinics and service providers to stop distributing medicine and other items in lightweight plastic bags, and food and beverage manufacturers to phase out excessive plastic packaging such as individually-wrapped biscuits and snack foods and 3-in-1 beverage sachets, which are convenience products and were not even common until the last decade or two. Incentives must be created to not only allow but encourage consumers to buy items such as vegetables loose or using their own produce bags, and to phase out the practice of wrapping individual fruits, vegetables and other products in clingfilm and selling such products in trays covered in clingfilm. Styrofoam and soft plastic supermarket produce and food trays are generally not recyclable, and even those that are made of recyclable plastics are not recovered for recycling due to its low grade and the fact that once contaminated by food and grease, it is no longer accepted for recycling. As paper bags have a high carbon and water footprint despite being less harmful to wildlife and human health, they should be used only sparingly as an alternative to plastic bags, for example, its use should be restricted to the sale and serving of food, and not as grocery and shopping bags. Alternatives to single-use plastics can include either biodegradable and compostable trays and packaging, or higher-grade recyclable plastic containers with lids (to eliminate the need for clingfilm and shrink wrap) that are recovered for recycling through a container deposit and recycling buyback system.

Volunteers who participate in beach and jungle clean-ups in Malaysia will find that a lot of the litter consists of items with a purportedly high recycling value, such as aluminium cans and PET bottles. This would indicate that there are not enough financial incentives for recycling in Malaysia. To increase solid waste recycling rates and reduce littering, I would recommend introducing a container deposit legislation such as those in place in Norway, Germany and Sweden. To make the financial incentive for recycling higher, the deposit needs to be of significant value, for example, 20 to 50 sen per item. The consumers bear the cost of this deposit, which they can then recover by collecting and returning the items for recycling. This container deposit system should include aluminium, steel and unbroken glass containers, plastic bottles including shampoo and detergent bottles and plastic containers such as the ones recommended above to replace plastic supermarket and food trays. It is not necessary to have expensive automated reverse vending machines or door-to-door collection systems to implement this container deposit system. We can use existing recycling collection centres and buyback centres and existing infrastructure such as local council offices, schools, residents’ association centres and community centres as recycling buyback centres.

To reduce littering in national parks and areas of ecological significance, entrance fees and hiking and camping permits should include an entry inspection system to charge hikers, campers and picnickers a deposit for each item in disposable packaging brought into the park, and refund the same only when these items are brought back for disposal upon exit.

Bans on lightweight plastic bags and single-use plastics are neither new nor revolutionary, and countries and cities that have implemented it report of positive consumer behavioural change and a reduction in littering. Since Denmark introduced a charge on plastic bags in 1993, the usage of plastic bags has been halved from 800 million bags to 400 million bags annually. The People’s Republic of China reported a 66% drop in plastic bag usage since its ban on lightweight plastic bags. Ireland’s plastic bag tax resulted in a 95% reduction in plastic bag litter. Kenya’s ban on plastic bags, described as the World’s Toughest Plastic Bag Ban, has shown such positive results within a year that neighbouring countries – Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and South Sudan – are considering following suit. The European Union has also in May 2018 proposed a ban on plastic cotton buds, drink stirrers, drinking straws and balloon sticks to cut down on marine litter. Considering that bans and taxes on single-use plastics have been successfully implemented and upheld in both developed and developing nations and jurisdictions, there is no reason why it cannot be effective and similarly successful in Malaysia.

A reduction in plastic waste and litter is not only beneficial to wildlife and the natural environment. Governments and local authorities stand to gain economically from the reduced costs of cleaning up public spaces and processing waste in landfills. Less plastic litter would result in fewer clogged drains and streams and fewer flash floods. There would be fewer breeding grounds for mosquitoes, rats and other disease vectors if there were less litter and fewer landfills. Governments and local businesses would benefit from increased tourism opportunities when recreational areas and tourist destinations are cleaner and free from litter. Clearly a ban on single-use plastics will require minor adjustments and behavioural change on the part of Malaysians, but the long-term benefits to the environment, society and the economy will outweigh any initial inconvenience.

WONG EE LYNN
COORDINATOR,
GREEN LIVING SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP,
MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Letter to the Editor: Reduce Waste and Consider the Environment During and After Election Campaigns


LETTER TO THE EDITOR

REDUCE WASTE AND CONSIDER THE ENVIRONMENT DURING AND AFTER ELECTION CAMPAIGNS

 

Now that the 2018 General Elections are over, I believe voters on both sides of the political divide can agree on one issue – that too much waste has been generated by both political coalitions during the campaign period. The sheer amount of waste generated and public funds and political donations expended in producing campaign materials and carrying out campaigns has an environmental and social impact.

 

I am of the opinion that the existing campaign spending cap of RM200,000 for each Parliamentary seat and RM100,000 for each State seat under the Election Offences Act 1954 is sufficient and should not be raised. We have seen for ourselves that an increasingly informed electorate is not swayed by handouts or the number of flags or banners, but has progressively relied more and more on social media, the internet and other independent sources of news to keep itself abreast of political news and developments. The funding of, and spending for, election campaigns are therefore not as necessary as we are led to believe it to be. A draft Political Donations and Expenditure Bill to curtail corruption and money politics was presented to the Attorney-General in 2017 but was not tabled in Parliament before the 14th General Elections. There is now a pressing need to table and review this Bill in the interests of transparency and integrity.

 

Apart from the link between political donations, undue influence and corruption, as an environmentally-minded citizen, I am of the opinion that enforcing the election campaign spending cap, monitoring donations and having clear guidelines on election spending and campaigning will pressure political parties and their campaign teams to be more careful about how funds are used, and this may in turn result in less indiscriminate production and display of election campaign paraphernalia.

 

During the recent campaign period, the sheer volume and density of election posters and flags in some areas pose a hazard to road-users and citizens. Traffic lights and signs are obscured and pedestrians have to look out for falling makeshift billboards and flagpoles. Restrictions on the number of physical campaign materials that each candidate is allowed to display in each area will force campaign teams to be more discerning and mindful as to what and how many materials to produce and where to affix them. 

 

It is not enough that political parties remove all campaign materials within 14 days after polling day. To demonstrate their commitment to the environment and prudent use of resources, political parties should endeavour to avoid generating excessive waste in the first place. We currently have non-governmental organisations collecting used and discarded party banners for repurposing and ‘upcycling’ into tote bags, sleeping mats for the homeless and the like. While this is creative and commendable, it should not be the responsibility of NGOs to find ways to delay the journey of campaign materials to the landfill. It should be the responsibility of parties, candidates and their campaign teams to find ways to reduce the amount of waste going to landfills and the corresponding expenses of collecting and transporting the waste.

 

Guidelines can be drawn up to put pressure on candidates and their campaign teams to:

1.      Reduce the amount of new campaign materials produced;

2.      Avoid using campaign materials that are toxic, polluting or non-recyclable;

3.      Produce more durable campaign materials (especially party flags, caps and t-shirts) that can be used over and over again;

4.      Produce campaign materials that can be more easily composted, recycled or repurposed;

5.      Avoid nailing campaign materials to trees or affixing campaign materials in environmentally-sensitive areas, such as near nature reserves and bird habitats;

6.      Avoid producing, buying or using materials that pose a threat to wildlife, such as styrofoam, balloons, and firecrackers, and leaving exposed wires and trailing strings after affixing campaign materials, as these could harm pedestrians and animals;

7.      Ensure that assemblies and ceramahs are held far from known bird and wildlife habitats such as urban parks and recreational forests, and reduce noise and light pollution during such events;

8.      Avoid giving out flyers and handouts during election campaigns and assemblies; and

9.      Provide campaign teams and agents with food and water that is not served in single-use disposable packaging.

 

The practice of providing food, gifts, goodie bags and promotional materials during campaigns should be eradicated completely as these not only create waste and litter but constitute money politics.

 

Although the General Elections typically take place only once every five years, it is absurd to justify wasteful and destructive practices on the basis that the elections do not occur very frequently. Election campaigns can and should be carried out with as little harm on the environment and community as possible. For political parties and candidates, remember that your work is a better testimony of your worth and better predictor of your election success than any billboard, poster or handout could ever be.   

 

 

WONG EE LYNN

COORDINATOR,

GREEN LIVING SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP,

MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY

 

 

Oil Palm,The RSPO and Sustainability: The Way Forward


PENCINTA ALAM JUNE 2018

GREEN LIVING COLUMN

OIL PALM, THE RSPO AND SUSTAINABILITY: THE WAY FORWARD

By Wong Ee Lynn


 

In the April and May 2018 Green Living columns, we had a brief overview of the environmental issues surrounding monoculture crops, the problems with oil palm cultivation and the reason why the European Parliament proposed a ban on palm oil biodiesel. Palm oil, along with other agricultural commodities such as soy, coffee, cocoa, rapeseed oil and other vegetable oils, has been blamed for causing environmental destruction, deforestation and human rights violations to its workers and rural and indigenous communities. This has led consumers and NGOs to pressure palm oil companies to clean up their act. Some environmental organisations, activists and consumer groups have called for bans on palm oil products, while some countries have laws that require manufacturers to clearly label palm oil as an ingredient in food and consumer products.

 

Today we explore a few questions related to whether oil palm cultivation can be made sustainable, and what we can do as consumers and activists.

 

 

Q: IS THERE SUCH A THING AS SUSTAINABLE PALM OIL?

 

Boycotting palm oil presents challenges. Considering that palm oil is cheaper and more resource-efficient than other vegetable oils (i.e. alternative vegetable oil crops may use up to 10 times more land. Source: spott.org) and the fact that the palm oil industry employs about 6 million people worldwide, boycotting palm oil may result in loss of jobs and income, palm oil producers selling to markets which don’t value the environment, and a lack of incentive for palm oil producers to find more sustainable ways to produce palm oil.

 

Sustainable palm oil is produced by companies that promise No Deforestation, No Peat Development and No Exploitation (‘NDPE’). These policies are usually applicable across the company’s supply chains, including third party suppliers and smallholders. They require farmers to stop burning land to clear it, assess land for high carbon stock and high conservation value before developing new plantations, and obtain land use permission from communities using a process known as ‘Free, Prior and Informed Consent’. Companies with NDPE policies in effect include Musim Mas, Golden-Agri Resources, Wilmar International, Cargill and Asian Agri. (Source: eco-business.com).

 

These requirements are reflected in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s certification system.

 

Q: WHAT IS THE RSPO AND ITS CRITERIA FOR CERTIFICATION?

 

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 to promote the production and use of sustainable palm oil. It is estimated that 40% of the world’s palm oil producers are members of the RSPO. Sustainable palm oil is defined by the 8 principles and criteria against which oil palm plantations are certified. RSPO’s 8 principles are:

(i)                 Commitment to transparency;

(ii)               Compliance with applicable laws and regulations.

(iii)             Commitment to long-term economic and financial viability;

(iv)             Use of appropriate best practices by growers and millers;

(v)               Environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity;

(vi)             Responsible consideration of employees as well as individuals and communities affected by growers and mills;

(vii)           Responsible development of new plantations; and

(viii)         Commitment to continuous improvement in key areas of activity.

 

RSPO’s criteria are reviewed every 5 years via public consultation, followed by member agreement on a consensus basis for any changes or additions. (Source: greenpalm.org)

 

There are 4 types of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO), namely:

(i)                 Identity Preserved (IP): The end user can trace the unit of palm oil to a single RSPO-certified supply base (i.e. single plantation).

(ii)               Segregated (SG): Palm fruit from multiple certified plantations are combined at the mill. The resulting CSPO is kept physically separate through the supply chain, but cannot be traced back to a single plantation.

(iii)             Mass Balanced (MB): The mill takes in palm fruit from certified and non-certified plantations and processes it together. The resulting oil is not physically linked to sustainable plantations, but the miller keeps track of how much sustainable palm oil it is producing and selling.

(iv)             Book & Claim (B&C): Manufacturers do not have to buy CSPO, but can pay for ‘RSPO Credits’ in an online marketplace to claim sustainability credentials. The funds from these sales support farmers to implement sustainable farming practices.

 

CSPO currently makes up approximately 21% of the world’s total palm oil supply.

 

Q: BUT WAIT! WHAT IS THIS I HEAR ABOUT CRITICISMS OF THE RSPO AND ITS CERTIFICATION SYSTEM?

 

Environmental organisations and investors have routinely criticised RSPO for failing to provide a credible assurance that CSPO is truly sustainable. Its current principles and criteria do not require companies to stop expanding onto peatlands or to stop clearing forest as per the High Carbon Stock approach. The auditors that verify company compliance to RSPO standards have also been accused of malpractice and corruption.

 

Activists have also criticised the speed and effectiveness with which RSPO investigates and resolves complaints made against its members. Some complaints have taken years to resolve, while other companies have allegedly been let off the hook too easily. The UK and Washington DC-based non-profit organisation, Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), released a 2015 report on malpractices by RSPO auditors, which included failure to spot violations and even abetting companies with cover-ups. The report suggested that RSPO-certified consumer products could be “tainted with human trafficking, rights abuses and the destruction of biodiversity.”

 

The RSPO is also making very little progress when it comes to ethics traceability in the world’s palm oil supply chain. In its 2016 report, RSPO admitted that the problem of child labour in palm oil plantations makes it “clearer that much work needs to be done.” (Source: triplepundit.com)

 

EIA and another non-profit organisation, Grassroots, found that monitoring of the RSPO system is not carried out by RSPO or its auditors, but by NGOs and communities. Many complaints of violations of RSPO’s principles and criteria, including some that were confirmed by the RSPO’s Complaints Panel, exposed an unfortunate truth: The world’s only global palm oil certification system – meant to ensure sustainability, human rights, labour standards, respect for the law and environmental protection in the sector – fails to achieve what it was set up to do. (Source: theecologist.org)

 

 

Q: IF THE WORLD’S ONLY CERTIFICATION BODY IS NOT CREDIBLE, WHAT CAN I DO AS A CONSUMER?

 

(i)                 Lack of awareness is a major issue. Make a conscious effort to learn about the exact ingredients of the products you purchase. Europe is leading the way with the introduction of mandatory labelling of products containing vegetable oils.

(ii)               WWF International stated in 2014 that Asian markets, being the biggest consumers of palm oil products, could drive and shape the industry. What you buy, and what you demand from manufacturers and producers, will force brands to act. Businesses will have to buckle to consumer pressure to be more transparent and responsible.

(iii)             Greenpeace International advises that the RSPO standards are not strong enough to prevent deforestation, and advises companies to seek certification with the Charter of the Palm Oil Innovation Group. Look out for these other certification bodies and groups and read about the companies and manufacturers whose products you most frequently purchase. Responsible sourcing will boost a brand.

(iv)             Use your voice. Write to big companies, especially the biggest snack food and processed food companies, to voice your concern about deforestation and human rights violations. Sign petitions to big corporations and the government, and use these petitions to help educate others and raise awareness about why you make the choices you do.  

(v)               Reducing your consumption of processed foods not only means reducing your dependence on palm oil and other vegetable oils, but also plastic packaging and the fuel miles your food had to travel to get to you. Think about whether it is important for you to have that packet of crisps or bar of chocolate right now, if there is the option of having a banana or corn on the cob instead.

(vi)             Learn about new technologies that are cleaning up the palm oil industry and which companies are investing in these technologies. It is not all bad news. In 2017, the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) and Orion Genomics developed a cheap plastic device with which subsistence farmers could punch samples from the leaves of their young palm plants. The samples are mailed to a laboratory which carries out molecular testing and informs the farmers which plants are viable, and which plants are a bad investment. This would help farmers reliably boost yields and reduce the motivation to spread oil palm plantations into forested areas, as less land would be needed to generate the same yield. (Source: bigthink.com) Products and technologies such as these which improve quality over quantity can ultimately reduce the need to keep opening up new lands for new plantings.

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Letter to the Editor: Make Environment A Priority, Not An Afterthought


LETTER TO THE EDITOR
MAKE ENVIRONMENT A PRIORITY, NOT AN AFTERTHOUGHT
 
It is heartening to know that 69% of Malaysian voters consider environmental protection to be one of the factors that will influence the way they will vote in the upcoming General Elections (The Star, Sun 15 March 2018: https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2018/04/15/pakatan-manifesto-on-environmental-protection-more-specific-say-activists/).
 
For far too long, sustainability and environmental conservation have been put on the backburner or seen as something ideal but inessential. In recent years, the destruction and human suffering caused by the East Coast floods, the 2014 droughts which led to water rationing in Selangor, the pollution of water sources in Cameron Highlands, reduced fish bycatch, the clearing of more land and forest for highway and infrastructure construction, the recurring haze, wildlife deaths and the economic uncertainty arising from the European Parliament’s proposed ban on palm oil biodiesel from Malaysia for environmental reasons have all played a role in raising public awareness on the interconnectedness of human and environmental well-being.
 
Having perused the election manifestos of both political coalitions, however, I am of the opinion that more specific, effective and convincing pledges need to be made. As we are all aware, the actions of legislators and governmental decision-makers are often inconsistent with their pledges. Some of these inconsistencies are pointed out below:
 
ON CLIMATE MITIGATION
 
Both coalitions pledge to take action to reduce carbon emissions by way of measures such as cleaner diesel and petrol and increasing the development and use of renewable energy.
 
Yet at the same time Barisan Nasional’s pledges to accelerate the growth of the oil and gas industries, its Forest Economy Policy which focus is on income generation and not conservation and its proposals to construct more roads and highways effectively efface any good that its plans to introduce electric buses, switch to LED lights and create urban parks and recreational areas could potentially create.
 
Pakatan Harapan has pledged to promote the development and use of green technology and renewable energy and halt Barisan Nasional’s plans to construct a nuclear power plant, but at the same time plans to reintroduce petroleum subsidies and construct more roads and highways.
 
Both coalitions should instead focus on policies to reduce reliance on private vehicle ownership and driving, by establishing reliable and affordable non-fossil fuel powered public transport systems, creating incentives for telecommuting and upgrading existing road and rail infrastructure instead of opening up more land for highways and roads.
 
ON DEFORESTATION
 
Both coalitions pledged to curtail illegal logging and manage forests and forest resources sustainably, despite their existing history of doing the exact opposite. Barisan Nasional had authorized logging and forest clearing in Ulu Muda, Merapoh and Terenggun, among others, despite knowing the importance of the ecosystem services provided by these forest reserves.
 
Similarly, Pakatan Harapan in its previous election manifesto had pledged to gazette and conserve forests and halt illegal logging, but went on to degazette parts of the Selangor State Park for the construction of the East Klang Valley Expressway (EKVE), and this action makes voters now wary about their lofty promises to halt deforestation.
 
Both coalitions pledged to preserve biodiversity and wildlife populations, yet under their watch, the construction of yet more highways and roads has opened up access to wildlife for poachers and wildlife traffickers, and caused an alarming increase in wildlife roadkill.
 
The rakyat needs to witness sincerity on the part of the political leaders in protecting forests, water catchment areas and environmentally sensitive areas. No amount of public relations exercises comprising the planting of trees in urban parks is able to reverse the adverse impact of rampant deforestation, fragmentation of wildlife habitats and the opening up of more land for infrastructure projects.
 
ON WASTE MANAGEMENT AND PLASTIC POLLUTION
 
Both coalitions promised to improve solid waste collection services and ease of recycling. Yet Barisan Nasional proposed to reverse the ban on free plastic bags in Pakatan states, and has allowed the plastics manufacturing industry to be a powerful lobby. In Pakatan states, the ban on free plastic bags has normalized waste reduction practices and encouraged consumer environmental responsibility, but the replacement of styrofoam food packaging with other forms of plastic packaging that are neither biodegradable nor collected and recovered for recycling has cancelled some of the benefits of the plastic bag and styrofoam ban.
 
According to a 2015 study published in Science journal, Malaysia is among the top 8 highest-offending ocean plastic polluters in the world. Malaysia is one of the 200 countries which signed the December 2017 UN resolution on microplastics and marine litter, but has to date not been seen to do anything constructive to reduce plastics production, consumption and disposal, although the Selangor State Government has been regularly cleaning up its beaches, which, while commendable, constitutes a treatment of the symptoms and not the cause.
 
Both coalitions need to create incentives for waste reduction and alternatives to plastics and other harmful and wasteful materials and industries. The environment cannot wait. Already human and animal health and food security have been adversely affected by plastics pollution and poor waste management practices.
 
Voters are becoming better informed, and will not stand for environmental tokenism by either political coalition. It cannot be the job of concerned citizens, non-governmental organisations and volunteers alone to protect and speak up for Malaysia’s natural environment and resources. Malaysia stands to gain more economic benefits and ecosystem services from keeping its forests, mangroves and other environmentally-sensitive areas intact and biologically diverse, than from issuing permits for logging, mining and road construction. The time to act for the environment is now. Environmental conservation should be each political coalition’s main consideration in all its policies and decisions, and not an afterthought.
 
 
WONG EE LYNN
COORDINATOR,
GREEN LIVING SPECIAL INTEREST GROUP,
MALAYSIAN NATURE SOCIETY

Monday, March 19, 2018

What's the problem with monoculture crops?

PENCINTA ALAM APRIL 2018
GREEN LIVING COLUMN
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH MONOCULTURE CROPS?
Compiled and edited by Wong Ee Lynn
 
European lawmakers recently approved a plan to meet climate goals, which includes a ban on the use of palm oil, including palm oil from Malaysia, in motor fuels from 2021.
 
This move has a significant negative impact on Malaysia’s economy because from the 2 million tonnes of palm oil Malaysia exports to Europe, over 30% is used for biodiesel.
 
The reason for this proposed ban is because large areas of tropical forests, wildlife habitats and other ecosystems with high conservation value have been cleared to make room for oil palm plantations.
 
One of the reasons why conventional oil palm cultivation is so destructive to rainforests, wildlife populations and the climate is because it is a monoculture crop. Although this is not the only reason oil palm is environmentally problematic, there are certainly many environmental problems associated with monoculture, i.e. the growing of only one type of crop in a given area at the same time.
 
Oil palm isn’t the only monoculture crop. Modern commercial agriculture often seeks to increase yield – and so profits – by cultivating a single type of plant. The farmer only needs to provide for the needs of a single species in order to grow a successful crop, and this means increased savings and hence increased profits for the farmer. Corn, barley, wheat, soybean and similar crops are mostly cultivated as monoculture crops as well.
 
Monoculture agriculture may be more efficient and inexpensive for farmer, but it has significant negative impacts on the environment, some of which are identified below:
 
Eliminates Biological Controls

In a monoculture system, there is no range of insect species in a location to ensure that a single population does not get too large and damage too many plants. There are no varieties of plant that naturally provide nutrients to the soil, such as nitrogen-fixing legumes, or ground cover crops that can be slashed and left to improve the nutrient content of the topsoil, or a variety of plants with different root depths to reduce erosion. There are fewer species of microorganism and bacteria on the soil as there are fewer nutrients available for them to survive on.
 
More Synthetic Material Use

A diverse ecosystem provides natural checks-and-balances to keep the soil and plants healthy. A monoculture production has to use large quantities of synthetic herbicides, insecticides, bactericides and fertilizers to replicate some of these ways nature uses to protect crops.
 
Changing Organism Resistance

Nature is adaptable, and this means organisms are evolving resistance to these artificial insecticides and herbicides. Of course, the farmers want to continue to protect their crops, so new inorganic methods are continually being developed to kill pests, fungus and weeds. More and more chemicals are being applied to monoculture crops and, in turn, adversely affecting natural ecosystems and human health.
 
 
Soil Degradation

In monoculture plantations, ground cover crops are eliminated, meaning there is no natural protection for the soil from erosion by wind and rain. Degraded soil becomes unusable for agriculture after a few years. In some countries, forests are then cleared to provide new agricultural land, starting the damaging cycle all over again.
 
Water Use

With no ground cover plants to help improve moisture retention in the soil, and the tendency for land planted with a monoculture to lack topsoil, which serves to increase rain runoff, modern monoculture agriculture requires huge amounts of water to irrigate the crops. This means water is being pumped from lakes, rivers and reservoirs at great rates, depleting this natural resource and affecting those aquatic ecosystems. This is on top of the pollution of water sources by agricultural chemicals.
 
Fossil Fuels

Due to their scale, harvesting of crops in monoculture farms is generally performed by machines. Large amounts of fossil fuels are required to sort, pack and transport the crops.
 
In combination with the chemical fertilisers and pesticides, the industrialised mode of food production is a major contributor to climate change. It is also an incredibly inefficient way of using energy to produce food, taking an estimated 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce just a single calorie of food energy.
 
 

Q: I’m Not a Farmer, So What Can I Do?

 
For starters, you can try:
·        Reading your labels and buying fewer or no products originating from monoculture crops. This will often mean buying organic cocoa and coffee grown in bird-friendly plantations (these plantations have a diversity of trees and plants to provide bird and wildlife habitats), buying organic products that are certified sustainable, and buying fewer or no processed food items such as instant noodles and biscuits, as these often contain vegetable oil from crops grown on monoculture farms.
·        Eating less or no meat so the demand for grain crops (mostly corn and soy) for animal feed will decrease and the need for monoculture will decrease as well. More than 60% of crops, particularly soy and corn, is used to feed animals, not people. It would take less land, water and soil to grow enough crops for human consumption, than to grow crops as animal feed so that the animals can in turn be consumed by humans.
·        Buying from farms that are known to practice crop rotation, or which grow a variety of crops.
·        Purchasing locally-grown produce, especially from small organic farms, edible gardens, cooperatives and indigenous communities, instead of crops from big agricultural companies.
·        Growing your own vegetables and herbs, which is good for your health and finances as well as the environment!
 
(Environmental issues specific to conventional oil palm cultivation will be discussed in the May 2018 Green Living Column.)