At the Full Council meeting in December last year, Cllr Kerry Smith (Ind, Nethermayne) moved a motion with cross-party support seeking to promote a borough-wide ban on products containing palm oil. Never one to miss a passing bandwagon, Councillor Smith was quick to seize on the publicity surrounding the Christmas advert for Iceland, which sought to highlight the plight of Orangutans, whose habitat is being destroyed in order to facilitate the cultivation of palm oil. Iceland took a decision to remove palm oil from all their own-band products until palm oil is made entirely sustainable but their Christmas advert – voiced by Dame Emma Thompson – promoting the move was banned by some officious quango as ‘too political’.
Such a cuddly and fluffy ‘green’ issue is a somewhat unlikely cause célèbre for Councillor Smith. Given that this is a guy who is on record as saying he doesn’t believe in climate change, I do have hard time believing he has suddenly become an ardent conservationist. But, putting aside my cynicism, he does raise a serious issue.
There is no doubt that palm oil cultivation is responsible for horrendous deforestation in places like Malaysia and Indonesia. This is because palm oil is the most commonly used vegetable oil in the world. It is an extremely versatile product and its affordability means it presently features – believe it or not – in over half the products we see on our supermarket shelves; from foodstuffs like biscuits, bread, cereals, and chocolate to things like lipstick, toothpaste and washing-up liquid. Some 66 million tonnes of it is produced every year. But the environmental cost is enormous. Palm oil production accounts for around 8% of the world’s deforestation; all prime tropical rainforest. In Borneo alone, the palm oil industry has deforested an area the size of 146 football fields… every single hour. This loss of habitat has had a devastating effect on the orangutans of Borneo (hence the cuddly friend Councillor Smith brought with him into the chamber). Between 1999 and 2015, they have been halved in number. There are less than 100,000 of them left. Palm oil cultivation also accounts for billions of tonnes of CO2 emissions.
But people are starting to take notice. The Norwegian Parliament recently voted to stop its biofuel industry from using palm oil from 2020. The European Union is hoping to phase it out by 2030. Of course, the 7-fold increase in palm oil demand – apart from its use in all the consumables I mentioned earlier – is at least in part due to its use in biofuels; an industry that is, of course, attempting to reduce our reliance on environmentally damaging fossil fuels. I believe this is what they call the ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’.
It was for this reason that, although I welcome Councillor Smith’s motion and ultimately voted for it, it was with the caveat that I do not believe a boycott is necessarily the correct course for Basildon Council to take due to the extraordinary versatility of palm oil. IUt cannot be ignored that palm oil is the highest yielding vegetable oil per hectare in the world. It is five times more efficient than either rapeseed or sunflower oil, nine times more efficient than corn or soya – and requires less pesticides and chemical fertiliser. Palm oil provides a third of the world’s vegetable oil, from just 10% of the land used for all oil crops. So, assuming consumers still want to consume the products they currently do, a wilderness five times the size of what is currently planted with palm oil would need to be ploughed up elsewhere. So, we need to be mindful of that.
You would also need an alternative diverse enough to capture the range of uses of palm oil. Again, there are no easy answers here. Coconut oil can be used as an alternative in cosmetics, etc, but would require ten times the tropical rainforest to cultivate. It should also be noted that, as yet, palm oil has not been selectively bred to the same extent as other crops. Some scientists estimate a five to ten-fold increase in yield may be possible over the next couple of decades. If this could be achieved, it would reduce the land needed for oil and the rainforests could naturally expand. Work is already underway in Borneo to create forest reserves for the orangutans, to increase connectivity between their remaining habitats and stop inbreeding between isolated populations and help the species replenish itself.
From a health perspective, palm oil is also an ideal substitute for partially hydrogenated oils – the ‘trans fats’ that food processors love and health experts hate. Interestingly, it is also semisolid at room temperature and can stay stable for long periods without going rancid. There is also an economic development angle. Palm oil is a cash crop for around 4.5 million people, allowing families to send their children to school, rural development to take place, enabling communities to lift themselves out of poverty and invest in schools, roads and hospitals. Palm oil produces fruit over 25 years, so for these people it provides real long-term economic safety.
The motion was duly passed and eventually went to the Policy Oversight and Strategy Committee meeting last month, where Councillor Smith continued to press for a blanket ban. I promoted a compromise, however, to support palm oil and economic development in some of the poorest parts of the world, without supporting deforestation. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has set up a certification scheme, which has already certified nearly 4m hectares as sustainable. That is now producing 19% of global palm oil. As of late last year, the scheme had approved a 0% deforestation commitment, meaning that no new rainforest is allowed to be cut down. Major companies are starting to listen, with brands like Unilever, Kellogg’s and PepsiCo certifying 100% of their palm oil to RSPO standards. In 2013, Wilmar International, the world’s largest palm oil trader, signed up to a 100% zero-deforestation agreement. Under my compromise, Basildon Council would seek to use RSPO certified products where available and highlight the benefits of using these products. In the end, this was unanimously supported (albeit somewhat begrudgingly by Councillor Smith).
I think this was a sensible outcome. Once the Council is using RSPO certified products, we can rest assured that we are not contributing to deforestation or the senseless slaughter of orangutans but, through certification and pledging to pay just that little bit more, support the development of communities in some of the poorest parts of the world, which reduction in poverty will also have the knock-on effect of stopping the hunting of orangutans and other charismatic species in those parts of the world. We are not boycotting palm oil but unsustainable palm oil. By doing so, I believe we will be safeguarding more of our precious wilderness areas by spending our money with those companies that have pledged to stop deforestation and improve the economic situation of some of the poorest communities in South-East Asia.