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Anita Neville headshot

Can Consumers Trust Products Containing Palm Oil?

By Anita Neville

Is there a more controversial topic in agriculture than palm oil right now? The debate about this versatile vegetable oil is increasingly polarized as evidenced by the reactions to the recent kerfuffle over whether Iceland Foods re-made Greenpeace video-come-Christmas ad should be aired in the United Kingdom.

The video controversy is the latest in a string of campaign actions against palm oil, calling for brands and producers to drop “dirty” palm oil. As the war of words continues online, opinions are divided over whether it presents insight or inaccuracy. Meanwhile, what about consumers? After seeing this video, are consumers really any more informed than they were before?

Owning our shortcomings

Before we get into how versatile and productive palm oil is, and how doing away with it opens up a Pandora’s box of potential unintended consequences that could be at least as bad for the planet, if not worse, I want to make one statement clear upfront. The palm oil sector still has a lot of work to do to complete the transformation that is currently underway.

My company, Golden Agri-Resources, is among the leaders in this process of change. We are committed to ensuring our operations have a no deforestation footprint and have a positive impact on the communities in which we operate. We are the first to admit that palm oil, as an industry, isn’t without its faults. However, good progress has been made in recent years to improve its sustainability. Of the many industries that have contributed to deforestation over the years, palm oil has made some of the greatest strides in addressing deforestation. GAR alone has set aside 72,000 hectares of conservation land, an area the size of Singapore.

Positive change is happening in a sector that has, in the past, been slow to recognize problems, and even slower to act. This progress should be recognized and encouraged, if we are going to bring the majority of palm oil producers with us on this journey of change. This is especially true of smallholder farmers who make up the backbone of the industry and who are most vulnerable to the damage calls for bans and boycotts can do.

If not palm oil, then what?

The reality is palm oil is up to 10 times more productive than the other vegetable oils that would otherwise replace it, producing more oil and using less fertilizer and pesticides. A recent report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature stated that saying no to palm oil would significantly increase the total land area used for vegetable oil production to meet global demand. Currently, palm oil production uses about 7 percent of the world’s agricultural land to produce 32 percent of the world’s oil needs. Palm oil also requests much less fertilizer and pesticides as compared with rapeseed (canola) and soybean.

A former colleague in this space was fond of saying if palm oil didn’t exist, we would have to invent it such are its extraordinary qualities. Beyond its incredible yield per hectare, its applications seem endless. It can be used in food, personal care products and even bioenergy. This versatility has been used against it by some who think palm oil’s ubiquity in our diets and lifestyles is sinister. Again, what would we replace palm oil with? And what would be the environmental and social implications of the alternative? Those are the questions we need to weigh up.

Can a plant ever be bad or good?

Oil palm is just a plant, plants are not good or bad. It is how you grow it that matters. The fruit of this tree produces an incredibly healthy and efficient vegetable oil. Palm oil is rich in anti-oxidants and carotenes (Vitamin A) and Vitamin E. It also contains phytosterols, compounds found in plants that are scientifically proven to help lower cholesterol. Its versatility and the fact that it doesn’t need to go through a hydrogenation process makes it a popular ingredient in the foods and consumer goods. The use of the catch-all “vegetable oil” tag, has contributed to a sense that palm oil is a “hidden” ingredient (it’s not the only oil this label is applied to). It never has been, and never will be, in the industry’s interest to ‘hide’ palm oil as an ingredient. To help raise consumer awareness around which products contain the ingredient, GAR developed a handy “Palm Oil Products in a Supermarket” tool that can tell you exactly which consumables contain palm oil. On pack identification helps consumers make choices about what they do or don’t want to buy and encourages manufacturers to explain and defend their purchasing decisions.

Who to trust?

But why should anyone take my word for it? Why should consumers trust palm oil? Trust is built from understanding, which requires openness and transparency. It also requires space to have a balanced and informed debate. Space, and a sense of balance, is currently lacking in the palm oil discussion. Is it any wonder that despite Greenpeace’s protestations that it is not anti-palm oil but anti-deforestation, the general public, when bombarded by repeated anti-palm oil messages, takes the easy out and calls for boycotts?

Critics will say – well she works for a palm oil company, you would expect her to defend it. My role within GAR is to provide customers and consumers with information to help them to make informed choices about the palm oil products we produce and that they use. As an advisor to the business, I am also involved in the day-to-day discussions about how we produce those products responsibly with minimal environmental impact and maximizing the benefits to the farmers and communities with whom we work. We report on this effort consistently through our annual Sustainability Report and our website.

We appreciate that not everyone will read through a hefty report before buying a bottle of shampoo to understand if its ingredients are sustainable. This is why we held a Twitter Chat, in partnership with TriplePundit, to raise awareness of the #peoplebehindpalmoil and the realities of this crop.

Questions raised in this open discussion include: how do consumers know what products contain palm oil? How can mothers be sure that what they are feeding their children is responsibly sourced?

Making wise choices as consumers

As a mother myself this last question had very specific resonance. How can consumers tell which products contain sustainable palm oil? First and foremost, the food industry needs to work together to better inform consumers and empower them to make more sustainable choices. RSPO (Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil) certified palm oil is a good place to start.

Second, customer advocacy is the best way to instigate long-term change. We, as consumers, need to ask the brands we love what they source and where from. Companies such as Nestlé are already doing an incredible job to raise awareness and have committed to only using 100 percent sustainably sourced palm oil by 2020.

We must also be prepared to pay a little more for sustainable products to ensure that those growing the product are able to make a decent living. When prices are low, farmers tend to resort to traditional and cheaper farming techniques. Traditional methods are often harmful to the environment and less sustainable.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the constant din of voices and opinions out there. We all want to ensure that we preserve our planet for future generations but blanket bans or simply walking away never fixes a problem. We must understand the issues, identify the solutions and all take action together. I’d urge you to follow GAR on Twitter (@GAR_Sinarmas) to gain more insight on this extraordinary crop, and join the conversation on how sustainable palm oil can and is becoming a reality.

Image credits: Golden Agri-Resources

Anita Neville headshot

Anita Neville is Vice President of Corporate Communications and Sustainability Relations at Golden Agri-Resources.

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