Iceland chief hits back at palm oil PR stunt criticisms as farmers union declares “palm oil is a lifeline, not a bogeyman”

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08 Jan 2019 --- The Director of Palm Oil Farmers Unite has hit out at UK retailer Iceland’s “anti-palm oil crusade” claiming that the “hypocritical and immoral” campaign is damaging to thousands of Malaysian and Indonesian smallholder farmers who depend on the vegetable oil supply chain to make a living. But, Iceland’s Managing Director insists the supermarket chain is not calling for a palm oil ban, but is strongly against deforestation and wants to see a sustainable supply chain.

Thompson Ayodele of the group claims that the supermarket’s stance, something which he brands “a corporate misstep,” can tarnish an entire nation’s public perception. He says that Iceland boss Richard Walker risks turning African and Asian small farmers against the UK because the supermarket continues to “demonize small farmers across the developing world.”

Ayodele makes the comments in a recently published opinion editorial in Malaysian newspaper The Star. They come after last year Iceland became the first UK supermarket to ban palm oil from its own-label products. However, a myriad of other products and brands containing palm oil are available to buy from the supermarket nationwide, the group notes.

Iceland says it is taking a stand against palm oil, tapping into a growing demand for non-palm oil products driven by so-called “mindful consumers” who are concerned about environmental issues like deforestation as well as child labor which is often associated with the controversial crop.

However, the supermarket also faced accusations that its campaign was hypocritical and a “PR stunt” after it asked Greenpeace to use one of its adverts as part of Iceland’s TV Christmas campaign. The animated ad was taken on by UK retailer Iceland to shine a light on the environmental devastation caused by palm oil producers and features the story of a displaced orangutan, claiming the commercial “chimes exactly with the messages that we’re trying to give.”

Speaking to FoodIngredientsFirst, Walker insists that Ayedole is completely wrong in his claims that Iceland has sought to ban palm oil, or has ever encouraged anyone else to do so. 

“Both are simply untrue,” he comments. “As we have repeatedly made clear, we are not against palm oil itself, but against deforestation. We took the decision to remove palm oil ingredients from our Iceland own label food last April because we wanted to offer consumers a choice and to raise awareness of the huge environmental damage being done to our precious tropical rainforests, endangered wildlife and indigenous people, by deforestation driven by the growing global demand for palm oil.”

"We have never called for a boycott or ban, and have always acknowledged that genuinely sustainable palm oil can offer environmental advantages, compared with other types of vegetable oil, because of the higher yields it offers. We are delighted by recent announcements from the RSPO and Wilmar which suggest that they intend to make a real effort to deliver sustainable palm oil with zero deforestation to the mass market,” he adds.

The Christmas ad was submitted to Clearcast, the non-governmental organization which pre-approves most British television advertising. As a Greenpeace film, it had been appearing on the Greenpeace website for a number of months. Clearcast deemed it too political for TV, however, leading to widespread media interest and likely more publicity as a result. 

Click to EnlargeClearcast deemed the Iceland Christmas ad too political for TV, however, leading to widespread media interest and likely more publicity as a result. “Iceland decided first to ban all palm oil products from its own-brand range and then, in collaboration with Greenpeace, launched an advertisement to promote this fact. What has not been reported is the impact that Iceland’s stance will have on countries in Africa, and elsewhere,” Ayodele writes in the opinion piece. 

“Palm oil may be a bogeyman for some in Britain; in much of the developing world around the equator, it is a lifeline. The anger, however, is now growing. Malaysian and Indonesian farmers have expressed their displeasure and their governments are reflecting it in their discussions with the UK government.”

“Colombia too has openly criticized Iceland’s campaign. Nigerian and other African farmers will not be far behind,” Ayodele mentions. 

“The claims around the orangutan are equally absurd. Data from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) shows orangutan populations are stable; a recent study highlighted the major cause of orangutan deaths was hunting, not palm oil.”

“It’s worth noting that Iceland has banned all palm oil, including from Africa, where orangutan have never lived. You couldn’t make it up.”

The comments come at the same time as a new study finds that consumer goods companies and retailers need to be upfront about where palm oil in their products comes from to relieve consumers of the burden of making sustainable choices. 

New research from the University of Cambridge, published in peer-reviewed open-access scientific journal, Environmental Research Letters, says that palm oil production causes deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions from peatland conversion, and biodiversity loss, but it is found in many products, often unbeknownst to consumers. It is a common ingredient in foods, body products, detergents, and biofuels.

Dr. Rosemary Ostfeld, from the University of Cambridge, the study's lead author, notes how the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has made efforts to improve the sustainability of palm oil production by creating an environmental certification system for palm oil.

“But currently only 19 percent of palm oil is RSPO-certified. This means the majority that finds its way into products people buy daily is still produced using conventional practices,” she says. “We wanted to find out if consumers were actively seeking to make a sustainable choice about palm oil. We also explored what extra efforts governments could make to ensure sustainable palm oil consumption.”

The researchers surveyed 1,695 British consumers through the market research company YouGov. Respondents were asked about their awareness of palm oil and its environmental impact; their recognition of “ecolabels” such as Fairtrade, the Soil Association, and RSPO; and which eco-labeled products they included in their weekly household shopping.

They found UK consumer awareness of palm oil was high (77 percent), with 41 percent of those aware of it viewing it as “environmentally unfriendly.” Yet, almost no consumers were aware of the RSPO label that showed a product contained sustainably-produced palm oil.

“In terms of label recognition versus action, 82 percent of people recognized the Fairtrade label, but only 29 percent actively buy Fairtrade products,” adds Dr. Ostfeld.

“Only five percent recognized the RSPO label – the same as a fictional label we put into the survey as a control. Of that small number, only one percent said they actively include products with the label in their shopping.”

The low recognition of the RSPO label could be due to the scarcity of its use by consumer goods companies and retailers.

Dr. Ostfeld suggested: “This may be due in part to reluctance to draw attention to their use of palm oil, or it may be because they fall short of the 95 percent physical certified palm oil content that used to be needed to use the label.”

“Either way, we found that relying on consumers to consciously and regularly include certified products in their shopping has limitations. Our results show that even when consumer awareness of an ecolabel is high, action is not guaranteed.”

To address this problem, the researchers put forward several policy recommendations.

“Palm oil is more efficient to produce than other vegetable oils and plays a vital role in the livelihoods of millions of people, so banning it is not plausible. Instead, the goal should be to encourage sustainable palm oil production,” notes Dr. Ostfeld.

“We recommend governments require consumer goods companies and retailers to buy identity-preserved certified palm oil, which can be traced back to the individual plantation. If national targets must be met with identity-preserved certified palm oil, demand for it will increase. It will also enable unsustainable practices to be uncovered more easily.”

“Companies should also publicly disclose their palm oil suppliers. This will help consumers know if they're sourcing their palm oil from growers who use best practices. We believe these measures could promote a more rapid move towards sustainable palm oil consumption and higher levels of accountability throughout the supply chain,” Dr. Ostfeld concludes.

By Gaynor Selby

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