Iceland has oversimplified the palm oil problem

13 Nov 2018

Every now and then I become quite anxious and worried about the fate of the planet we live on. This is happening more often than just the sporadic qualm of conscience.


In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that I am now quite fearful that our shared space, Earth, may, if it hasn’t happened already, reach a tipping point that is irreversible. Up to now, I had always, very lazily, supposed that someone else was on the case and that there would come a day when we would all just have to start behaving better and of course, we would know when that day comes.


Admittedly, I’ve come to this point rather late. But I’ve decided that it’s a case of better late than never. In my own defence, this is not just a sudden onslaught of insight. It’s been building for quite a while. And therein lies the problem: where does one begin, and who should one listen to?


The other day I came across the story about the banning of Iceland's palm oil advert. It piqued my interest primarily because I wanted to see what someone had done to get an advert banned. So, I read on, like many others I imagine, and clicked the link to the video.

It’s a great video. I loved it all - the animation, the narration and, of course, the story behind it. And a funny thing happened as I watched. I began to feel a little disturbed because I realised that here was yet another corporate body taking a social issue that we should all care about, and essentially, they made it their own. What, I wondered, was the motivation for Iceland doing this?


I fought and argued with myself for a couple of days. Yet I couldn’t make myself get behind the advert. I resolved, therefore, to do a little research of my own. I came at this with absolutely no expertise in environmentalism or rainforests, or even a particular knowledge of the geography involved.


To begin with, mostly everyone I have spoken to likes the advert and many think we should stop using palm oil and well done Iceland for removing it from their shelves.


It turns out, however, that the issue with palm oil is not so simple. Some experts argue that simply promoting a ban on palm oil is counterproductive for the regions that produce it, for the rainforests and for economies. They argue that palm oil is actually a more efficient way to produce vegetable oil than, for example, rapeseed oil which needs a lot more land to produce.


Environmentalist and writer Jonathan Porritt was pretty scathing about the Iceland move. He argues that clearing forests for cattle grazing, or growing feed for livestock is actually much worse than any clearance made necessary because of palm oil. He points out that Iceland will need to source alternative oils to replace the palm oil. However, other oils require a lot more land and herbicide use to grow them. So, actually, palm oil may be a more efficient product because it causes less deforestation than say, rapeseed oil.


According to The Guardian, Iceland got permission from Greenpeace, who originally made the advert, to re-badge the advert with the Iceland logo for use as Iceland’s Christmas advert campaign. The general consensus online appears to suggest, rather strongly, that most commentators think this is a good thing because it raises awareness.


You can’t really argue with that view, because, if the internet search results page is anything to go by, it has been all over the media. And yet it may not have been such a good idea because it is clear that simply banning palm oil is not the correct answer. Even Greenpeace don’t seem to think a ban on palm oil is a good thing and they themselves recognise that alternatives to palm oil are more land hungry:


“But if all consumer goods companies stopped using palm oil, demand would switch to another vegetable oil – perhaps soy, rapeseed or sunflower. When grown in vast quantities all of these alternative oils have serious environmental problems, including rainforest destruction. The reason palm oil’s popularity rocketed in the first place was due to it being a very land-efficient crop. You get a lot of oil per hectare, it requires relatively few pesticides and it’s highly versatile. It’s used in everything from lipstick to soap, toothpaste to chocolate.”


Confusingly, the Greenpeace/Iceland video specifically identifies palm oil as the reason humans are clearing the forest. Yet my, admittedly, limited research suggests that experts may not agree. The campaign group Say No to Palm Oil recognises that palm oil requires less land then other vegetable oil products. They say they are not against palm oil, but against palm oil that is produced unsustainably. And there is some evidence that work to define and promote sustainable palm oil is being done, and has been so for a number of years.


The High Carbon Stock Methodology, is, according to its website a methodology that distinguishes forest areas for protection from degraded lands with low carbon and biodiversity values that may be developed. The methodology was developed with the aim to ensure a practical, transparent, robust, and scientifically credible approach that is widely accepted to implement commitments to halt deforestation in the tropics, while ensuring the rights and livelihoods of local peoples are respected.


Two academics from Kent University, Dr. Jake Bicknell and Dr. Mathew Struebig are quoted on Plant Based News claiming that "in order to feed the world, palm oil is actually part of the solution, because fewer resources are required."


The main issue, then, is not so much the production of palm oil but the clearance of forest, which something that is done for numerous reasons. You don’t need to be a scientist to know that the clearance of the rainforests is really bad for our planet.


To be fair to Iceland, they have definitely succeeded in creating a discourse. But, as is often the case with campaigns, soon we will all move on to the next thing. I just can’t help thinking that the issue that is, I now see, much more complex than banning palm oil has been somewhat hijacked.



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