22. 11. 2018

Sustainable Palm Oil: If you Want to End Deforestation, Stick to the Facts!

I hate to have to say this, but James Corden and Bill Bailey have allowed themselves to be duped by an unholy combination of NGOs and naïve retailers.

I’m referring, of course, to the controversy over a recent film made by Greenpeace to highlight the continuing plight of orangutans in Indonesia and Malaysia, if land is cleared for new oil palm development.

It’s now getting a huge amount of airtime, as Greenpeace offered the use of the film to Iceland for their Christmas advert. Greenpeace has a strong relationship with Iceland, the only UK retailer which has committed to phase out the use of palm oil in all its own products by the end of the year, on the grounds that its CEO, Richard Walker, doesn’t know how to tell the difference between certified sustainable palm oil and uncertified palm oil.

(By the way, it’s not difficult, Richard: you just have to pay slightly more for the certified oil than for the uncertified oil – but then your customers wouldn’t like that, would they? And it would be really good if you made sure that the 500 tonnes a month you need was certified as sustainable, not least because a lot of certified oil doesn’t find a buyer at the moment, and is sold as uncertified oil!)

When they checked the film, the regulator of broadcast advertising intervened to stop Iceland using the film on the grounds that it was ‘too political’. And that’s because it was made by Greenpeace for specifically ‘political’ reasons, with no requirement on them whatsoever to worry about being ‘fair, decent, honest and true’. This has prompted a massive social media campaign, supported by Corden, Bailey and dozens of equally ill-advised ‘celebs’ calling for the Rang-tan to be ‘liberated’ from this wicked attempt to curtail freedom of speech.

To be honest, that’s a laugh. The film is unashamedly propagandistic and emotional – as John Sauven, CEO of Greenpeace UK, has explicitly acknowledged. It focuses on a young girl discovering a baby orangutan in her bedroom after it had been driven out of his forest home. They both have huge, dark brown eyes. It’s well-made, and effective – but deeply manipulative. Why?

- It implies that the oil palm industry is the biggest cause of deforestation anywhere in the world. It is NOT. Not by a long chalk.
- It implies that tens of thousands of orangutans are still being killed in Indonesia and Malaysia every year because of oil palm developments. They are NOT.
- It implies that all palm oil, whatever it’s being used for and whoever produces it, is responsible for the death of thousands of orangutans. It is NOT.
- It implies that responsible consumers will inevitably have to take their share of responsibility for the death of orangutans as a consequence of purchasing products which contain palm oil. They do NOT.

Four big, fat, completely mendacious implications. Greenpeace does a lot of good work on palm oil issues, in all sorts of different ways, but the story of sustainable palm oil is a complicated one, and it is not helped by wilful misrepresentations of this kind.

Bizarrely, Greenpeace knows this as well as anyone. Earlier in November, Greenpeace UK released a video which explicitly acknowledges that boycotting palm oil is the wrong thing to do; that switching from palm oil to other oils can be the wrong thing to do, since palm oil is so much more productive per hectare; and that ‘growing palm oil without deforestation is possible, and there are growers working that way.’

It then turns up the heat in its campaign against Wilmar, but does so within the kind of proper contextual background that is so seriously absent in the Rang-tan film. Will the real Greenpeace stand up, please?!

More than a million people have signed up to the Rang-tan campaign since then. But it would be so good if we could help deepen their awareness here, bearing in mind that:

1. By any measure you choose to adopt, more deforestation today is caused today by beef, by soy, and by maize, than by palm oil. Especially beef, which is responsible for 80% of deforestation across the Amazon, and 65% of total deforestation.
2. Boycotting palm oil is purposeless, as has been recently acknowledged by the International Union for Conservation of Nature – in that the world will still need cooking oils, and all the substitutes will cause more damage than palm oil does.
3. The reason for that is simple: palm oil provides 35% of global edible oils – and yet takes up only 10% of the total global acreage devoted to edible oils. It is so much more efficient than sunflower or rapeseed oil, let alone soybean oil, which is itself a massive driver of deforestation throughout South America.
4. The RSPO has just incorporated strict ‘no deforestation criteria’ into its basic Principles & Criteria – so there is now no excuse to go on arguing that RSPO certification does not help reduce deforestation.

At which point, I have to make a declaration of personal and professional interest.

In the first place, Forum for the Future does a lot of work with the oil palm industry, for which we are paid. Our most important project is based in Indonesia, where we’re working with five large palm oil companies, as well as a wide range of NGOs and international organisations, to address complex labour rights challenges within the sector.

But this is also personal. I act as the Independent Sustainability Advisor, on behalf of Forum for the Future, to Sime Darby Plantation, the largest producer of certified palm oil in the world. I’ve watched Sime Darby in particular, together with other big players in the industry, incrementally get its house in order, in order to be able to sell genuinely sustainable palm oil in Europe and elsewhere, as certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

None of these companies is perfect. Indeed, I remain a fierce critic of just how long it has taken to sort out some of the legacy issues. There are still far too many laggards in the industry, and a lot of environmental damage is still being done. But to go on vilifying and demonising such a critically important industry, which continues to move forward on challenges like deforestation and better working conditions, makes no sense whatsoever.

The process of certification through the RSPO is indeed not perfect, but it’s the best way we have of sorting out the good stuff from the not good enough stuff – even if people like Richard Walker don’t understand that basic reality.

(In that regard, much though I despise Piers Morgan, I couldn’t help but enjoy the way he skewered Richard Walker on precisely that issue. Including his strangulated efforts to distinguish between Iceland’s own brand products (now ‘palm oil free’) and all the other products that Iceland sells (more than 200 of them) which continue to use palm oil!)

So don’t give in to emotion here – stick to the facts, difficult and messy as they inevitably are. Just as you should support the good guys in the oil palm industry, and criticise the bad guys, so you should support Greenpeace in the good work it does (including the video referred to in paragraph 8 above), but criticise them when they get it wrong.

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16. 01. 2019

Thankfully, and at last, some clearer information. Since visiting an orangutan sanctuary in Borneo last year I have made a more concerted effort to "do my bit" During research I found out that palm oil is everywhere and it's really difficult to find out exactly which products contain it (it's often listed under an enormous range of names for a start). At the time there were lots of questions about the validity of the RSPO accreditation scheme too. The e was also the question of; if not palm oil then what?
The public needs more information on this, and soon. There is so much conflicting evidence and it is so difficult to make informed choices.

07. 01. 2019
Andrew Stoll

Never mind Greenpeace - It is the extremely high quality of land repurposed for cheap palm oil which makes it such a questionable practice!
The richness of nature in Indonesian and Malaysian land replaced with monoculture oil palm plantations is simply wrong! Orang Utans are but one species among countless others which are negatively affected or driven to extinction. This is the point and this is why we should avoid palm oil at all costs. It is a moral choice, wether it may make a difference or not. Soya beans and beef are another matter altogether!

14. 12. 2018

We have to work with those willing to face world responsibilities and tussle with the related challenges. Emotive and divisive chatter (aimed at raising funds in this case rather than true awareness) is the enemy of constructive progress. A good post Jonathan and the right involvement to make the world a better place, based upon evidence and collaboration with real integrity - thanks.

28. 11. 2018

Greenpeace wrongly declares that they have supreme knowledge of all environmental issues. They certainly have NOT and I have had a run-in with them on previous occasions. I threw my membership of their organisation in the bin due to their arrogance and high-handedness. Well said, Jonathon!

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