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Stop Haze and Save Lives

The following opinion piece was submitted by PM.Haze (People's Movement to Stop Haze) / 人民抗烟霾行动.

Earlier this year at a primary school, we asked students if they remembered the 2015 haze. A boy mustered up enough courage to say “my grandfather died”. Turns out the haze may be deadlier than we thought. A new study released on Monday estimated that 100,300 people in Southeast Asia died prematurely due to the haze last year; the number of premature deaths in Singapore is estimated at 2,200. Although this figure was refuted by the Ministry of Health (MOH), it is an undeniable fact that haze as a type of air pollution has an impact on health. The study also poses a serious question to all of us in Singapore: why should we live with the deadly smoke when we have the means to stop it?

Haze is the symptom of a string of environmental and social crisis created ultimately by the increasing demand of crops like palm oil. Indonesia currently has 8.1 million hectares of oil palm plantations, and total acreage is projected to reach 13 million hectares by 2020. The increasing demand for palm oil drives unsustainable expansion of plantations marred with deforestation, peat drainage, burning and land conflict. While the Indonesian government took commendable measures to stop the fires, the majority of our own Singaporean businesses involved in the palm oil supply chain, especially the palm oil buyers, have not taken action to stop the haze.

An enticing solution to the haze problem is to boycott palm oil. However, palm oil is 5-8 times more productive than other oil crops such as canola. Switching to other oil crop would mean we need more land and we will clear more forests. And that’s not what we want. Instead, we should use haze-free palm oil. Haze-free palm oil is simply palm oil produced without burning and deforestation. At the moment, palm oil that’s certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is the closest to being haze-free. However, RSPO-labelled products are still largely unavailable to consumers in Singapore. Therefore getting companies to use RSPO-certified palm oil is the first step towards being haze-free.

In Singapore, palm oil is the main ingredient of cooking oil used by restaurants and hawkers. It is mostly labelled as “vegetable oil”, as if we squeeze it out from bok choy. Back in July this year, the volunteers at People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PM.Haze) embarked on an investigation project to find out the use of palm oil in our favourite restaurants. We visited 33 outlets of famous restaurant chains along Orchard road, including those in Takashimaya, Paragon and Somerset 313. To our surprise, 32 out of 33 use palm oil for cooking. We also surveyed the edible oil businesses and found that five can supply RSPO-certified cooking oil in Singapore with additional costs of 6-10%. Comparing with the amount of oil used in each end product, the difference in cost is negligible. IKEA Singapore already switched to 100% RSPO-certified cooking oil in their restaurants last year. Therefore businesses can switch to RSPO-certified cooking oil and reap in reputational benefit.

While people in Singapore suffer from the haze, our own Singaporean businesses should no longer be complicit in the crime, especially when relatively low cost solutions exist. After the investigation, we spoke to many businesses that use palm oil, but most were reluctant to switch to RSPO-certified palm oil, citing the lack of consumer awareness and demand. We realised that consumers have to voice out their support for haze-free palm oil in order to drive change in the businesses. As a result, PM.Haze recently launched a campaign to raise awareness of haze-free palm oil and to call for restaurants to go haze-free. In just the first few days of the campaign, it has attracted the support of over 20 Singapore-based organisations and more than 300 individuals. It is now up to the businesses of Singapore to show that they care about their customers and our common environment.

Find out more about the #GoHazeFree campaign at pmhaze.org. FB: www.facebook.com/pmhaze