In a bid to promote its palm oil-free products for the looming Christmas consumption frenzy, British supermarket chain Iceland recently sought to repurpose a moving Greenpeace campaign ad. The Disney-like cartoon shows a baby orangutan in a British child’s bedroom, disturbed by chocolate and shampoo containing palm oil, the crop which has destroyed its home.
Clearcast, the body that assesses advertising in accordance with the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising, deemed the ad “too political”. Several left-leaning publications slammed the decision, with The Guardian calling Iceland’s campaign “brave and necessary”, while the Independent argued it was “heartless” to ban the “brave and beautiful” advert.
Earlier in the year, Iceland became the first retailer in Britain to announce it would be phasing out the use of oil palm in its home-brand range of products. But like banning plastic bag bans or insisting on bamboo straws, this piece of corporation-led consumer activism ignores the complex reality of oil palm production and its environmental consequences.
For years, environmentalist and human rights groups have rightly investigated and criticised the oil palm industry. Many scientists do indeed consider oil palm as one of the greatest threats to tropical diversity. Predominantly Western activism on the issue of palm oil has now successfully positioned the crop in the minds of many consumers as being in the same category as tobacco or fossil fuels.
Indonesia and Malaysia are the largest producers of what is the world’s most commonly used vegetable oil, accounting for almost 90% of global supply. Palm oil is widely used in a range of household products from cosmetics to confectionary. It is also used in biofuels. In June, the European Union announced it would completely phase out the use of palm oil in biofuels by 2030, angering governments in Jakarta and Putrajaya.
The campaigns in opposition to palm oil belie an undeniable fact: the world needs cooking oil. And as far as vegetable oils go, palm oil isn’t a bad one.
Even according to the activist group Palm Oil Investigations, “oil palm is highly productive crop which is capable of yielding more oil from less land than any other vegetable oil in existence”. Oil palm produces about 35% of the world’s vegetable oil on less than 10% of the land allocated to oil crops.
For Europeans, it is easy to criticise developing Southeast Asian nations for destroying rainforests for agriculture, given that the forests of Europe were largely destroyed centuries ago for the same reason. Not content exploiting resources available on the British Isles or the continent, Europeans then set out to colonise Asia and Africa to exploit their natural resources.
Rather than seek to abolish the crop altogether, Western activists should focus on preventing further deforestation, rehabilitating damaged habitats, and ensuring that impoverished farmers can be optimally productive on their land that has already been cleared for agriculture. This means rejecting what Greenpeace calls “dirty palm oil” and instead insisting on sustainably produced palm oil from accountable and transparent farmers committed to zero deforestation.
Importantly, consumers in Asia seem largely unfazed by the source of their palm oil. Indonesia, India and China account for most of the world’s palm oil consumption. In May, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang signed a new deal to increase Indonesian palm oil exports to China by up to 500,000 tonnes each year. Jakarta this month announced it would ratify a trade agreement with Pakistan, under which the South Asian nation is expected to purchase 70% of its crude palm oil from Indonesia.
A recent study from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) showed that banning palm oil would likely simply push demand for more land-hungry oils such as soy. Unlike the Iceland campaign, the NGO’s report also offered realistic policy solutions to improve environmental governance and mitigate oil palm’s harmful impacts on biodiversity.
“Palm oil is decimating Southeast Asia’s rich diversity of species as it eats into swathes of tropical forest,” said report lead author and Chair of IUCN’s Oil Palm Task Force, Erik Meijaard:
But if it is replaced by much larger areas of rapeseed, soy or sunflower fields, different natural ecosystems and species may suffer. To put a stop to the destruction we must work towards deforestation-free palm oil.
With the importance of oil palm for the economies of Indonesia and Malaysia, governments appear to be taking the issue of sustainability increasingly seriously. In September, Indonesia’s president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo signed a moratorium on new licences for palm oil plantations that will last three years. Malaysian producers are moving towards strains of oil palm that can produce more fruit with less land, meaning there is less need for further land clearing and deforestation.
“When you consider the disastrous impacts of palm oil on biodiversity from a global perspective, there are no simple solutions,” said IUCN Director General Inger Andersen in June. “Half of the world’s population uses palm oil in food, and if we ban or boycott it, other, more land-hungry oils will likely take its place.”
Palm oil is here to stay, and we urgently need concerted action to make palm oil production more sustainable, ensuring that all parties – governments, producers and the supply chain – honour their sustainability commitments.
This should be the focus of Western consumers and activists, not whether broadcast authorities allow a supermarket to cash in this Christmas.