Academics have questioned whether a UK supermarket’s blanket ban on palm oil in its own brand products is a good move.
Earlier this month, UK chain Iceland announced it would remove the oil – which is controversial due to its impact on both animals and the environment.
The product is found in numerous goods – including soap, makeup, and cleaning products as well as food items.
But two academics say the move could backfire. Dr Jake Bicknell and Dr Matthew Struebig, from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Biology [DICE] within the School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent, are currently working with palm oil certification bodies and companies to improve the way in which palm oil cultivation affects the environment.
According to the pair: “This involves demonstrating the advantages of connecting high-quality rainforest patches in oil palm plantations to allow wildlife to move freely. As certification of palm oil becomes more widespread, with it will come improved prospects for wildlife.
“Therefore, Iceland’s move to ban palm oil products, rather than work with the industry to seek sustainably sourced solutions, could be viewed as a step backwards.
“Environmentally conscious consumers should demand palm oil from certified sources, but avoiding it altogether runs the risk of putting pressure on other crops that are equally to blame for the world’s environmental problems.”
Speaking about Iceland’s announcement, they said: “The move to ban palm oil in its products is unsurprising given the recent news that 100,000 orangutans have been killed in Borneo since 1999, most attributed to deforestation.
“Much of this deforestation has been associated, rightly or wrongly, with palm oil production. Retailers are therefore under a lot of pressure to ensure their palm oil products are sourced responsibly.
“Palm oil is in numerous food and cosmetic products because it is cheap to produce. Compared to other sources of vegetable oil (e.g. rapeseed and soybean oil) palm oil yields up to five times the oil per unit of land, and requires far less pesticide and fertiliser. This means, in order to feed the world, palm oil is actually part of the solution, because fewer resources are required.”
They admit the impact of palm oil production on climate and biodiversity are high, as large tropical areas areas are cleared for its cultivation, adding: “Certification – by which consumers pay higher prices for more sustainably sourced products – is one way to safeguard rainforests, but unfortunately less than 20 percent of palm oil is currently certified as sustainable.
“The industry has come a long way, but still has much to do to improve environmental practices.
“Time will tell whether retailer moves to withdraw palm oil will exacerbate environmental problems in the long term or provide the added pressure needed for producers to implement certification practices.”
But Iceland’s Managing Director, Richard Walker, said there is ‘no such thing’ as sustainable palm oil, after personally visiting Indonesia – the world’s top palm oil producer – to investigate the industry, and see the destruction it causes first hand.
He told The Grocer: “The journey has shown me that, currently, no major supermarket or food manufacturer can substantiate any claim that the palm oil they use is truly sustainable, as the damage being caused to the global environment and communities in Southeast Asia is just too extensive.”
Iceland is set to remove palm oil from 130 products by year’s end, and plans to keep palm oil out of its products, barring major change in the industry.