Palm oil kills orangutans, is responsible for deforestation, and poses an enormous threat to the environment.
Palm oil reduces the need for deforestation and the use of chemical fertilisers; alleviates poverty, and offers wildlife protection from losing their habitats.
Both of these statements are true. They are also incomplete. This is the problem with the palm oil debate.
Language can be direct, deceitful or disingenuous. It can be used to reassure or rouse to action; to confuse, convince, cajole or con. It can be true, false or somewhere in between. When it comes to the palm oil debate, it is definitely somewhere in between.
There is a – now defunct – website which sat firmly in the pro-palm oil camp. In presenting their message, the Palm Oil Truth Foundation (POTF) took an aggressive and damning stance on the allegations from the NGOs. They were emphatically Right!, and their articles were full of phrases like ‘baseless, ludicrous claims’ and ‘a rolling cauldron of blunderbuss allegations’ (a French parliamentary Bill was described as ‘prepostrous’ and the Senator who sponsored it ‘delusional’).
There are any number of what we can call ‘anti-palm oil’ websites, but the Palm Oil Truth Foundation was one of the (very) few which took the ‘pro-palm oil’ position.
If the POTF website was supposed to create balance, the reader would have been disappointed. There is no reason to believe their website contained anything that was untrue (though there style was questionable. Generally when the word ‘TRUTH’ is written in capital letters it doesn't fill the reader with confidence), but because the language they used was so inflammatory it was difficult to tell what was fact, what was opinion, and what was hyperbole.
The anti-palm oil websites use similar tactics. Photographs of baby orangutans are not a rational explanation of an issue, they are an appeal to the emotions. Campaigns with names like ‘The Last Stand of the Orangutan’ and ‘Appetite for Destruction’ are no different in style from a site which calls French politicians delusional.
The problem for the consumer who wants to know more about palm oil is that websites and campigners of all stripes use this kind of language because it is very effective.
When a campaigner, advertiser or politician has only seconds to grab our attention, the words they choose are incredibly important.
Luntz Global is a company which advises governments and corporations on the language they need to use to influence how voters think, and how consumers spend their money. CEO Frank Luntz told the Republicans to stop using the words ‘Global Warming’ and instead refer to it as ‘Climate Change’ (‘Change’ sounds less scary than ‘Warming’). He told an energy company to use the term ‘Exploration for energy’ instead of ‘Drilling for oil’. When the US government wanted to get rid of some ‘Environmental Standards’ they knew the US public wouldn’t like that, so Luntz suggested they call them ‘Government Regulations’ instead. The US public doesn’t like government regulations so no one complained when the government got rid of them.
The langauge used in the palm oil debate generally sits in two camps. The anti-palm oil groups tend to use hyperbole and focus on the emotions, and the industry produces reams of dry scientific data, but neither offer any real advice on what to do about our concerns. We are stuck between one side which dumbs down and another which dumbs up too far. The problem is that between those two extremes there’s little actual information we can use to help us understand the issues.
It’s an instinct the media suffers from too. A BBC Panorama programme on palm oil was called ‘Dying for a Biscuit’. Whether the contents of the programme justified that title or not, there is little likelihood that the programme was approaching the research impartially.
One device for convincing your audience (which certainly isn’t limited to the palm oil debate) is a sentence which makes a bold statement and then moves on as if we all agree that the statement is true. This example is from EthicalConsumer.org: “As western consumers lose confidence in the attempts to certify sustainable palm oil, [Ethical Consumer] describes the latest campaigns and outlines a possible ethical consumer response.” Are western consumers losing confidence? Based on what research? Are ‘western consumers’ even aware that certification exists?
Sometimes it can be as simple as bad grammar. This statement (which hopefully was a mistake) comes from Saynotopalmoil.com: ‘Palm oil is grown throughout Africa, Asia, North America and South America’. Does it mean ‘throughout’ as in ‘in every part of’, or does it really just mean ‘in’? Oil palms require tropical conditions to be grown commercially. It couldn’t be grown throughout Africa because the climate in Morocco or Namibia wouldn’t allow it. Throughout “Asia, North America and South America” would mean palm oil plantations in Patagonia, Siberia and Alaska.
Statistics are a wonderful way of making your point. Numbers don’t lie. They don’t have to: they just have to be big.
In an otherwise very balanced article from 2005 the writer stated that increased demand for palm oil would require “a mind-boggling 6-10 million hectares [of additional land for plantations] over the next 20 years.” Our first reaction on reading that is ‘Wow!’. The second reaction is: ‘How big is a hectare?’
The number is impressive not because it’s informative, but because it sounds scary. It turns out a hectare is the space inside an Olympic running track (a soccer pitch is 0.7 of a hectare). 4-7 million extra soccer pitches is a lot, but it’s a little less mind-boggling when placed in context. 4.9 billion hectares of land are given over to agriculture globally - about 40% of the world’s land surface area (1.4 billion hectares for arable land and around 3.5 billion hectares to raise livestock - giving up Big Macs would have a far more significant impact than giving up muesli).
Using big numbers has an impact on the reader, but without any context they can be misleading. (The irony of using even bigger numbers to make the point is not lost on this writer.)
Photographs are hugely important. An image like Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning shot from Sudan galvanised support for the Live Aid movement in the 1980s. Images are strong on impact but short on specifics. The orangutan is an obvious poster child for some parts of the debate. The Jumping Spider is under equal threat from deforestation, but spiders aren’t as fluffy as apes, and what politician or celebrity want to appear to be ‘on the other side of’ a position that has a baby orangutan as its mascot?
What all this adds up to is that consumers have to tread very carefully through the debate if they are to find the information they need.
If there are problems with the way some palm oil is produced, the solution will require the informed involvement of consumers. Those NGOs and companies to which we go for information need to find a more rational way of presenting it.