Written by Dana Burton
Palm oil has certainly got its place in the limelight this week what with the recent apparent “banning of the Iceland” advert. Since opening the shop, I have come across various issues and Palm oil is one of them that crops up from time to time.
As part of the my role in the shop I like to research issues, to ensure we are selling the most ethical products we can find and that includes, products that don’t harm animals, products, that are fairly traded, so don’t come from child or adult slave labour markets, products that are grown in sustainable ways, so they are not causing unnecessary deforestation and protect the ecosystem.
We set up the shop because the majority of major brands and supermarkets, are not producing ethical goods, and by the time I had boycotted all the main supermarket brands I found myself with very little to eat! So the only logical step was to open a shop that sold brands that hit those ethical goals.
Now it’s worth pointing out, to find products that hit all those ethical points are very difficult to find, we have a world built for consumerism, high demand and low prices and in a lot of cases, it’s a matter of picking the best case scenarios and doing the best we can.
I don’t think of myself as an eco warrior, I’m just a normal person trying to do my best for the planet, across a wide range of ethical issues, I have my own set of boycotts and ethical values.
We do that by having a set of values that the products must conform to and try to find the best and most ethical products we can find against those values, also giving consumers choice to select products that reflect their own values.
So in my research I of course have come across the palm oil issue before, and before I go on to say my piece I just want to point out, I absolutely do not support any unsustainable farming methods and moving to sustainable farming is key to helping, not harming our planet, but it is a very complex issue, many farming communities are in poverty – one for the reasons being us in the west wanting prices as low as possible and supermarkets driving prices down and down and the poorest communities suffer. You see everything is linked.
This mass movement of wanting to support Iceland because of an advert campaign that was supposedly banned, as soon as I saw the advert I smelt a rat. Not least because they were pushing the message to boycott palm oil, which I believe is the wrong solution to the palm oil problem. When Iceland along with the other supermarkets probably contributed to causing the problem in the first place, because of their demand for cheap and processed foods.
So where does palm oil come from? Years ago, a new fat was discovered called Trans fats, anyway, they thought they were a miracle cure to saturated fat, until it turned out Trans fats where worse for us than Saturated fat and quickly looked to other options rather than killing us all off with heart disease. Palm oil seemed like an obvious choice because it has only 50% saturated fat which is better than some other oils it also has a high yield meaning they can grow lots per hectare of land.
Also Palm oil is a very useful oil, that has many different uses and the oil itself is not necessarily “ bad”. You could argue it is not overly healthy, but there are a lot worse things out there for you. On top of that around 40% of palm oil is grown on small holdings a move to boycott palm oil is going to affect the small holders rather than the big farms.
The problem with palm oil comes because there is a massive demand for it, it’s cheap and easy to grow, so the demand grows and it because it can’t be grown all over the world only in certain areas, unfortunately the rainforests in these areas have suffered, and the poor uranutangs. Although it’s worth pointing out that this is not an exclusive problem to palm oil. Deforestation is a problem for many crops across the world and effect many animals and ecosystems, so poor palm oil is getting all the stick for all the deforestation across the world.
So do we need it? Technically don’t need it and could live without it, but at the moment it would be very challenging to avoid it since it makes up around 50% of supermarket items. It’s probably easier to avoid in food, not least because it is easy to spot in food products, thanks to some EU legislation making it a requirement to put it in the ingredients. Many people who have tried to live without palm oil have found it very difficult because it crops up everywhere and has many different names. To continue eating and using the products we enjoy there’s just no real sustainable alternative to palm oil at this moment in time, so if you are choosing to avoid palm oil, you need to be very careful what alternative you are using as it is likely to be less sustainable than palm oil.
So to me the obvious answer is to clean up the industry and help make it sustainable, so we can continue to enjoy the products that have in it, and put pressure on organisations to check supply chains and ensure they are coming from a sustainable source.
Iceland’s very clever marketing campaign fails to mention it’s is only their own branded products, so they will continue to sell palm oil in other brands, it’s also worth pointing out this commitment was for 2020, so there own branded products will still have palm oil in for a few years to come yet. They also fail to mention what they are replacing it with as if they are replacing it with and equally destructive oil, this helps no one, and also how many of their own brand products contained it in the first place, as it’s not often found in frozen foods anyway and fairly easy to replace in frozen foods. I have asked these questions to Iceland and am still awaiting a response.
It’s also worth pointing out Iceland gets the ethical consumers guide worst rating for palm oil out of the supermarkets and Waitrose and Marks and Spencers getting the best.Iceland also falls down on many other ethical issues and to me this whole campaign whilst on the one hand has got people talking about palm oil, and becoming aware of the issue is good, I feel the wrong message is being shared and fear the anti palm oil wave that will hit, may cause more destruction in other areas.
If we do switch to another oil, say coconut or olive, we will end up with the same, if not worse problem, because remember palm oil is high yielding, therefore if the demand for these products rises, we’re going to end up with deforestation in other parts of the world and other crops, which incidentally also happens, Palm oil is not the only crop that causes deforestation, destruction and damage to our environment. This is a global problem created by bad business practises and ultimately from the real drive to get food as cheap and convenient as possible for our ever growing population.
There are a number of initiatives to make Palm oil sustainable and one of them being the sustainable certification from the RSPO, which has had a lot of criticism, but equally has also done a lot of good for the industry, trying to clean up the palm oil industry, which is a very ambitious task. Particularly since almost all the major uk supermarkets are claiming to source 100% sustainable – and we know the industry is not 100% sustainable yet – so that seems like an unbelievable claim to me, and we’ve seen time a time again supermarket supply chains fall into trouble on many different levels and ethical issues.
So where does this leave us as a consumer because it can be overwhelming, it can leave us feeling a bit like well, I want to help the planet but how, The key to all these areas is to gain knowledge, as much as possible, if you find an area that touches a nerve with you like for example the plight of the orangutans, try to find out as much as possible about the issues so you can then make an informed choice, for what will work best for you. Personally I won’t be calling for a boycott to palm oil, but I will be continuing to look for sustainable products where I can and avoiding brands who are consistently irresponsible in their marketing and constantly fall down on ethical issues. By far the best thing you can do is Shopping locally at local wholefood shops, our local food market, and making small changes in your shopping habits, these things can make a big difference to protecting our planet and all who live on it.