On Tuesday 10th April 2018, Iceland announced that it was to remove palm oil from use in its own-brand products. They cited the lack of clarity to recognise what is a sustainable or unsustainable source of palm oil. Iceland has argued that although there are sustainable palm oil plantations, it is impossible to say with certainty that all palm oil used is sustainably produced.
In reaching their decision, Iceland surveyed 5,000 people with regards to palm oil and found that 35% of those asked weren’t aware of the environmental destruction caused and that 85% of people believed it shouldn’t be contained in food products after finding out the negative impacts on the environment (Chapman 2018).
Iceland estimate that they use 500 tonnes of palm oil in their own-brand products every year, which is only a fraction of the 400,000 tonnes that is consumed in the UK annually. Also, the European Palm Oil Alliance found that imports of palm oil rose by 38% in EU countries between 2016 and 2017. The market for palm oil is growing which is encouraging its unsustainable production in Malaysia and Indonesia in particular and must be addressed to prevent further environmental destruction.
The video of their announcement is below.
Role of Palm Oil
Palm oil is used in thousands of products ranging from cosmetics to food, washing products to shower gels and can also be used as a biofuel to power homes and vehicles and it is a huge employer for millions living in south-east Asia. There’s a very good chance that you’re using and consuming it without even realising.
The market for growing palm oil is huge in Malaysia and Indonesia which is why there is so muc illegal deforestation to make way for new plantations. It’s a huge employer of people in many developing countries that are often living in poverty, limiting the government response to the damage the industry does to rainforests.
The best climate for the palm oil plant to grow is in the tropics where there is an abundance of warm and wet weather. Unfortunately, that’s where most of the world’s rainforests are found. There are palm oil plantations in many continents but, according to saynotopalmoil.com, around 85% of the global supply of palm oil comes from Malaysia and Indonesia alone with very little of it being grown sustainably. The economic value of growing, producing and selling palm oil is much greater than keeping the original rainforest, but the environmental impacts are devastating.
Palm oil production has been linked to habitat degradation, animal cruelty and indigenous peoples rights abuses. Palm oil production in Indonesia is believed to have critically endangered approximately 30% of mammals on the south-east Asian islands (saynotopalmoil.com). Perhaps most damaging, however, is the impact growing palm oil has on deforestation and climate change.
In Indonesia, rainforests are being chopped down or burnt indiscriminately to make way for palm oil plantations. In the 1990s, deforestation is estimated to have contributed to 10-25% of the global anthropogenic emissions, which is expected to rise as deforestaion of the world’s rainforests continues (Santilli et al. 2005).
What about Palm Oil that is Sustainable?
There are some sustainable palm oil plantations in south-east Asia that use a certification system to ensure that their product is sustainable. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is one of the most widely used by major corporations to show what palm oil plantations are sustainable but it is voluntary and there are only a small number of plantations that have signed up and use the certification system.
Research by Carlson et al. (2018) found that sustainable palm oil certification did have a positive impact on reducing deforestation of the Indonesian rainforest. Whilst forest fires and deforestation still continued, there was a 33% reduction in deforestation that can be linked to the work of certification systems. Despite that, fires and the deforestation of peatlands, that lead to the release of more destructive greenhouse gas emissions, are still continuing with very little reduction.
Certification systems do play an important role in ensuring that palm oil does come from sustainable sources. However, the lack of a system that can be applied to all plantations around the world that would strictly ensure the sustainability of palm oil means what we consume can not always guarantee to be produced sustainably. This is where public pressure is important.
So What Can You do?
The reason palm oil is so widely used is that it’s cheap, easy to use and there’s a huge demand for it. The unsustainable nature of much of the palm oil used in products makes it unethical, which, in a world where climate change and environmental destruction is on the minds of the public in developed countries, can be very important in changing the minds of business. The easiest way to make changes is to be more aware of what products we consume that contain palm oil and to start looking at alternatives that are much more ethically responsible, forcing comapnies take listen and take note and make changes to their supply chain to more sustainable sources of palm oil.
The environmental destruction at the hands of big corporations pushing unsustainable palm oil production must stop and stop quickly. Iceland is just one supermarket, more must follow in reducing the consumption of palm oil or doing much more to ensure that it comes from a sustainable source.
Carlson, K.M., R. Heilmayr, H.K. Gibbs, P. Noojipady, D.N. Burns, D.C. Morton, N.F. Walker, G.D. Paoli, and C. Kremen. 2018. “Effect of oil palm sustainability certification on deforestation and fire in Indonesia.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 115 (1): 121-126.
Chapman, B. 2018. “Iceland to be first supermarket to remove palm oil from own-brand foods to help protect rainforest.” The Independent, April 10, 2018. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/iceland-palm-oil-own-brand-foods-removed-supermarkets-deforestation-environmental-damage-a8297506.html
Santilli, M., P. Moutinho, S. Schwartzman, D. Nepstad, L. Curran, and C. Nobre. 2005, “Tropical Deforestation and the Kyoto Protocol.” Climate Change 71 (3): 267-276.