It’s usually invisible, but you will find palm oil in around half the packaged products in your local supermarket. Palm oil in instant noodles, pizza dough, lipstick, toothpaste, chocolate, soap, shampoo, bread and biscuits. The list goes on. Over half the people on the planet consume palm oil as part of their diet, some rely on it as a staple.
Global production has boomed in recent years, increasing by a factor of fifteen from 4.5 million tonnes to 70 million tonnes since 1980. The environmental cost of this expansion has been incalculable. Many conservation professionals I speak to cite the systematic destruction of the tropical forests of Indonesia and Malaysia as the number one unfolding environmental disaster on the planet.
Every year between 750 and 1,250 orang-utans are killed in areas where palm oil agriculture is expanding. A further 10,000 orang-utans live in areas where government concessions have been granted. Orang-utans are just one of many species vulnerable to the relentless rise of palm oil. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) estimates that global palm oil production directly threatens 193 species on the IUCN Red List.
Humans are also affected. As tropical forests are cleared, the peat on which they grow is often burned, releasing billions of tonnes of carbon in the atmosphere and creating life-threatening hazes. In 2015 the haze crisis in Southeast Asia caused severe respiratory illnesses in over half a million Indonesians, forcing Jakarta to deploy thousands of troops and seek international assistance.
Well done then to Iceland Foods for committing to remove all palm oil from its own-brand range before Christmas. Using a Disney-style Greenpeace animation, Iceland made an advert to get the good news across to their customers. The advert has been banned by Clearcast, the body that assesses adverts against the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising, for being ‘too political’. Iceland’s managing director said he was ‘absolutely gutted’ though he can take some comfort in the fact the clip has gone viral on social media.
Is Iceland right, is it a good idea to ban palm oil? Should other retailers follow its lead? Oil palm plantations produce 35% of all global vegetable oil on less than 10% of the land allocated to oil crops. Oil palm also yields up to nine times more oil per unit area than other oil crops making its land footprint per calorie much lower than rapeseed, soya or sunflower oil. If we banned palm oil without reducing demand for vegetable oil, the expansion of other oil crops could place serious pressures on already stressed agricultural ecosystems in other parts of the world.
The solution to the palm oil crisis is therefore complex but there are three obvious actions that are needed urgently. First, strict protection of all remaining primary forests so there is no further conversion to plantation monocultures. Second, partial ecological restoration of existing plantations to be more orang-utan friendly. This means less intensive oil production and more connected patches of restored forests through which orang-utans and other species can move through the landscape. Restoration of peat swamp forests should be a top priority here given their importance as carbon stores and habitat for rare wildlife. Third, phasing out the use of palm oil for bio-fuels and other non-food uses where less environmentally damaging alternatives are available.
As consumers, we can all help facilitate these actions by only buying palm oil products certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
Jonny Hughes, Chief Executive.
This piece first appeared in The Scotsman on 13 November.