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Wednesday, 11 April 2018 15:03

Disagreement over Iceland's way of tackling palm oil's biodiversity impact

Retailer Iceland's decision to remove palm oil from its own branded food has been criticised by both The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, who share Iceland's concerns about the environmental impact of palm oil, but do not agree with the solutions Iceland are adopting, and the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Biology who say Iceland’s move to ban palm oil products is understandable but could backfire.

palm oil iceland mainDarrel Webber, RSPO's CEO, said: "We fully share Iceland's concerns about the environmental impact of palm oil, but we do not agree with the solutions they are adopting. Before getting rid of palm oil, we should ask ourselves: what is the impact of the alternatives?

"We should let consumers know that palm trees produce 4 to 10 times more oil per hectare than any other oil crop. Therefore eliminating palm oil might lead to the use of more land with higher risks of deforestation. What if we were to discover that palm oil is replaced by butter from cows fed with unsustainable soy grown at the expense of Amazon forest instead?

"If Iceland want to guarantee that their oils and fats sourcing is not causing rainforest destruction, they should work with the rest of the supply chain to promote the use of sustainable standards, such as RSPO, with a view to improve the sustainability of the entire market."

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 commented: "Iceland’s 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 riparian copy"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.
"However, because palm oil grows in tropical areas, when forest is cleared, the impacts on climate and biodiversity are high. Certification – by which consumers pay higher prices for more sustainably sourced products - is one way to safeguard rainforests, but unfortunately less than 20% 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.
"To help this problem, we are working with palm oil certification bodies and companies to improve the way in which palm oil cultivation affects the environment. 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.
palm oil iceland RSPO worker copy"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.
"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."

Iceland, announced yesterday (Tuesday) that it will stop using palm oil as an ingredient in all its own brand food by the end of 2018. It has already removed it from 50 percent of its own label range and this year, the frozen food specialist has brought out 100 new lines without palm oil, including the new summer range. By the start of 2019 Iceland claim they will have launched over 200 new lines that do not contain palm oil.

palm oil indonesian orang copyTHE PROBLEM
Growing demand for palm oil for use in food products, cosmetics and biodiesel is devastating tropical rainforests across South East Asia. In Indonesia and Malaysia, where expanding palm oil and wood pulp plantations are the biggest driver of deforestation, many species are being threatened with extinction, including the orangutan, already critically endangered. Recently published studies show that Bornean orangutan numbers more than halved between 1999 and 2015, with only 70,000–100,000 individuals remaining . In Indonesia alone, 146 football pitches of rainforests are lost every hour . Deforestation also results in increased global carbon emissions. In 2014, Indonesia had the fourth largest greenhouse gas emissions, mostly as a result of deforestation .

Palm oil is currently found in more than half of all supermarket products, from bread to biscuits and breakfast cereal to soap. Despite this:
• 35 percent of consumers are unaware of what palm oil is.
• Once informed about palm oil and its effects on the environment, 85 percent state that they do not believe palm oil should be used in food products.

Iceland's No Palm Oil Journey
The Iceland no palm oil pledge is that by the end of 2018, 100% of the supermarket's own brand food lines will contain no palm oil, reducing demand for palm oil by more than 500 tonnes per year.

Iceland claim the response from its own brand suppliers to the no palm oil campaign has been incredibly enthusiastic. Prior to work beginning on this initiative palm oil was present in 130 lines, accounting for approximately 10 per cent of Iceland's own brand food.

Iceland's Palm Oil Alternatives
The retailer believes there are a number of alternatives to palm oil that are not destroying the rainforest. These will vary depending on individual product requirements, meaning that there will be a mix of oils and fats involved. Alternatives will include sunflower oil, rapeseed oil and butter.

Iceland point out the shift away from palm oil has been enabled due to their investment of £5 million.

palm oil iceland RSPO fruits copyRSPO response - Removing palm oil all together is not the solution
RSPO state there is a misconception that the social and environmental concerns around palm oil can be addressed if companies simply stop using palm oil in their products and replace it with other types of oil. However, RSPO point out this is not as easy as it sounds for a number of reasons:
1. By eliminating palm oil from the equation, demand would shift to other vegetable oils. This would increase the sustainability problems because compared to other crops, like soybean, sunflower or rapeseed, oil palms produce by far the most vegetable oil per hectare of land (4-10 times more), so switching to other vegetable oils may very well result in more primary forests being converted into agricultural land, not less.
2. In producing countries, millions of farmers and their families work in the palm oil sector. Palm oil plays an important role in the reduction of poverty in these areas. In Indonesia and Malaysia, a total of 4.5 million people earn their living from palm oil production. Stopping the production of palm oil would mean these people will no longer be able to support their families.
3. Replacing palm oil with other types of oil is not always feasible due to palm oil's unique properties as a food ingredient. Using other oils would not give the products the same texture and taste that palm oil offers.

For sustainability reasons, the RSPO claim, it is better to switch to sustainable palm oil than to other vegetable oils.

They say this is confirmed also by a WWF Germany report, "Searching for alternatives". According to the report "the one-to-one substitution of palm oil with other tropical plant oils would not meet the desired objectives. Soya and coconut oil grow in similar or ecologically similarly sensitive regions, and therefore the replacement of one oil for another would not solve the problem but only shift it elsewhere and, in part, even exacerbate it. More land would be required, more greenhouse gas emissions would be generated, and more species would be endangered."

palm oil icelands richard walkerHowever, Richard Walker, Iceland Managing Director, comments: "Until Iceland can guarantee palm oil is not causing rainforest destruction, we are simply saying 'no to palm oil'. We don't believe there is such a thing as verifiably 'sustainable' palm oil available in the mass market, so we are giving consumers a choice for the first time.

"Having recently been to Indonesia and seen the environmental devastation caused by expanding palm oil production first hand, I feel passionately about the importance of raising awareness of this issue – and I know many British consumers share my concern and want to have a real choice about what they buy. This 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 South East Asia is just too extensive."

John Sauven, Executive Director of Greenpeace UK comments: "Iceland has concluded that removing palm oil is the only way it can offer its customers a guarantee that its products do not contain palm oil from forest destruction. This decision is a direct response to the palm oil industry's failure to clean up its act.

"As global temperatures rise from burning forests, and populations of endangered species continue to dwindle, companies using agricultural commodities like palm oil will come under increasing pressure to clean up their supply chains. Many of the biggest consumer companies in the world have promised to end their role in deforestation by 2020. Time is running out not just for these household brands but for the wildlife, the climate and everyone who depends on healthy forests for their survival."