In 2006 The Economist magazine published an article called ‘Good Food?’ If you think can make the planet better by clever shopping, think again. You might make it worse. The article took aim at Fairtrade, organic food, and local shopping. The debate which followed was long and heated.
The Economist’s dislike of Fairtrade stemmed from the fact that the premium paid for coffee produced under Fairtrade principles amounts to a subsidy, and is therefore anti-free trade, which is to be expected from such an economically liberal newspaper.
Local shopping was criticised because while road transport accounts for around 22% of carbon emissions, most people live closer to a supermarket than a farm shop (especially the kind of middle class urbanites who can afford to be picky about their food). The article stated that half of all ‘food miles’ in the UK are driven by cars heading to and from the supermarket, and that the supermarkets’ articulated lorries are far more efficiently packed than one person driving several miles out into the countryside to buy a couple of bags of fruit. (It’s worth reading the full article - it’s a compelling argument.)
On organic food, which is in theory kinder to the planet, the writer argued that organic, chemical-free farming is far less intensive and therefore requires far more land to maintain yields. ‘There wouldn’t be much room left for rainforests’ as the writer put it.
A reader’s reaction to the Economist’s approach to Fairtrade would depend largely on whether they share that newspaper’s economic views, but it is difficult to argue with their ideas on local food and organic farming. On organic farming especially, with our rapidly growing world population, and as global warming renders more agricultural land unuseable, how efficiently we use what land is left, and how we irrigate it, is going to be one of the key questions of this century (alongside who controls both those resources).
The volume of comments on various websites which followed would have come as no surprise. Ethical consumers are emotionally invested in the ethical part of their shopping decisions, and taking issue with anything that has ‘Ethical’ in its name is guaranteed to generate some angry Letters to the Editor. But it is a rare debate that is so black and white that supporting one side or the other will be without any potentially problematic consequences.
Palm oil is no exception.
Those shoppers who want to avoid palm oil for example, will probably be the same people who seek out Fairtrade coffee in the supermarket. The laudable point of Fairtrade is that our morning coffee must not come at the expense of farmers in developing nations, but the Malaysian palm oil industry directly employs over half a million workers, workers who would lose their livelihoods as a result of a blanket boycott of palm oil. Such ethical shopping choices present clear ethical dilemmas for the ethical consumer.
Being aware of that potential dilemma is the first step to finding a reasonable compromise, but when the majority of the information we receive comes from a limited number of sources, it’s likely that important information about other areas of the argument will be glossed over.
This is to be expected of course. It’s the World Wildlife Fund, to take just one example, not the World Developing Nations Fund or the World Looking after Smallholder Farmers Fund, so we can expect their website to focus on Wildlife.
Both sides of the palm oil debate have a variety of ways in which they communicate their messages to us.
On the ‘anti-‘ palm oil side there are the large, well-established NGOs such as WWF and, to a lesser extent Greenpeace, which favour engagement with the industry in order to acheive sustainability. Then there are the single-issue campaigns such as the Rainforest Action Network or The Orangutan Project which concern themselves with the threat plantations can pose to forests and therefore animal habitats. Thirdly, there are the Facebook campaigns and smaller websites, which focus on palm oil as a general threat to whatever their project covers.
On the ‘pro-‘ palm oil side of the debate are the growers, be they large plantation owners or smallholders’ collectives, the buyers of palm oil including large companies like Unilever and Nestle, and a handful of lobbyists funded by the industry.
On paper this would look like a fairly evenly matched debate. Both sides feature global, well-funded organisations at the top, and smaller campaigns at the bottom (though there are no grassroots Facebook pages celebrating palm oil for its own sake).
It would be expected that an industry worth some $50 billion a year would dominate the argument. The power of lobbyists funded by the pharmaceutical industry or the oil and gas companies would suggest that the palm oil industry could adopt the same tactics to achieve the same ends.
However, recent changes to legislation regarding the labelling of vegetable oils in the EU would suggest that the anti-palm oil lobby is enjoying far greater success at influencing the legislative process. The EU-wide labelling regulations come into effect in mid-December. In France Yves Daudigny, a member of the senate, has proposed what’s known as the ‘Nutella tax’ on products containing palm oil. In Australia activists are still calling for their own palm oil labelling laws.
Where the palm oil industry is going wrong is anyone’s guess.
As with any debate those organisations with the most efficient marketing departments will inform the public perception of the debate. In palm oil’s case it is NGOs such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund. They also have a highly effective grasp of social media.
It is the nature of the internet however that everyone has a voice, and Facebook and other social media sites have given smaller and far less well-funded groups the opportunity to talk to the masses. At best, they stay within their own remit and raise money for their given projects. At worst would be the comment on one Facebook group, which simply stated ‘I heard palm oil causes cancer!’ The administrator of that group could have pointed out to that member that their comment was inaccurate, but the flurry of concern in other comments which followed would have done no harm to the negative perception of palm oil that was the (stated) goal of the group. Fortunately for the consumer who wants to shop ethically, groups like this are in the minority.
Where the palm oil debate causes real problems is in the diversity of its stakeholders: growers, processors & traders, manufacturers such as Unilever, the supermarkets and other retailers, banks & investors, those companies looking into biofuels and renewable energy, environmental NGOs, social & developmental NGOs , campaigners and activists, smallholders (and their dependents), consumers and customers, certification bodies such as RSPO, and the legislators such as those in the EU.
Smallholders in particular are something of a problem for the anti-palm oil groups. There is almost no mention of them on most groups’ websites or social media pages. Because most of these groups present palm oil as a zero-sum game, an either/or question in which there is no middle ground, the introduction of the ethical dilemma that is the smallholder over-complicates matters and brings the risk of questions to which a simple answer isn’t available.
An organisation like WWF understands the importance of palm oil to countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, which is why it doesn’t demand an end to the industry, but there are many single-issue NGOs who tend not to mention the potential impact such a boycott would have on a developing economy.
There is no universally agreed upon definition of what makes a developed nation, though one common measure is that gross domestic product (GDP) divided by the population should amount to more than $20,000.
The UK has a GDP per capita of around $40,000, the US $53,000. China may have the world’s second largest economy but with its 1.4 billion people its per capita income is only $7000. Luxembourg tops the list with $110,000. Malawi trails on $222.
Malaysia currently sits on almost $11,000. The Malaysian government’s stated goal of achieving developed nation status by 2020 is a bit of a longshot, but palm oil is the country’s third largest industry (after electronic goods and oil) and is a key ingredient in their economic future.
NGOs play an important role in defending the ‘rights’ of Borneo’s orangutans, or the indigenous peoples of Indonesia, but few NGOs (WWF again is an exception), defend the right of a developing nation to improve the lives of its citizens, or the rights of smallholders to farm their land and support their families. These rights are as valid.
Equally important is the right, all things considered, for countries to do whatever they want with their rainforest. 62% of Malaysia is forested (20.46 million hectares). 81% if you include the plantations. The UK is almost 12% forest at 2.88 million hectares. It is completely redundant to point this out and is just joining the game of tennis both sides of the debate play with accusations and counter-accusations, but the environmentalist Jonathon Porritt recently suggested that the West would do well to consider what he called “eco-imperialism”.
To demand that the ASEAN (or South American, or Sub-Saharan) nations preserve their forests at the expense of their economies is, in the words of Yusof Basiron, CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, to demand that they become the world’s ‘forest rangers’ or, to put it more bluntly, the West’s gardeners.
The scientific debate surrounding palm oil is more nuanced than most headline writers would like, though it does occasionally get press attention. Primatologist Isabelle Lackmann was interviewed in the New Scientist magazine in 2013 on the subject of boycotting palm oil. The title of the piece was ‘Don’t demonise palm oil to save orangutans’. Her very balanced answers were a refreshing change, and are unusual in the mainstream debate (be that in the media or online), and it is a shame that such an informed interviewee should be relegated to a niche publication like New Scientist (even if it is the New York Times of scientific publications, it’s still not, well, the New York Times).
The popular debate is still dominated by social media, and unfortunately the shorthand required to reach people before they click on to check their email leaves the consumer somewhat under-informed. A photo of an orangutan is arresting, but by the time we’ve left that site we are no better informed about the debate than when we picked up our tablet.
These bite-sized messages do little more than make us ‘feel’. Orangutans may be the perfect vehicle with which to tug the heart strings, but they should just be a way in through the door. A canvassing politician dreams of having such an effective way of getting into our sitting rooms. The problem with the anti-palm oil sites is that they ring your doorbell, show you a photo of a baby ape, and walk away thinking the job has been done. It’s a hugely wasted opportunity. Sustainable solutions exist, and between the eager audience that these NGOs have online, and some of the ideas on sustainability currently being promoted within organsations such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the palm oil debate needn’t be a debate at all.
With so many competing groups however, the debate suffers from the same problems as the Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, where national concerns trumped global solutions. In palm oil’s case, it’s the competition between companies for market share, and the competition between NGOs for a finite amount of funding. The ‘winner’ will be the group which has the better marketing department. That dominant voice will be the one which then gathers the most supporters to their cause and can use the subsequent funding to make their voices louder.
As a result the consumer has to read between the lines to try to work out how this information fits into the global picture (or rather, a 1000-piece jigsaw of the global picture).
If any newspaper is going to take aim at a sacred cow like ethical consumerism it would have to be the Economist, but the only reason it is a sacred cow is because if it has the word ‘ethical’ in the title, the assumption is that it must be just that.
There is not a single ‘ethical’ debate –particularly a debate with as many stakeholders as palm oil - that does not have highly unethical ramifications for someone. But until we have all the information we need, our response to the information we do have is going to be inadequate.
The article in the Economist concluded by saying that it is up to governments, not consumers, to effect the change that is needed, but it also stated that ethical consumerism ‘sends a signal that there is an enormous appetite for change’.
Industry, NGOs and the media need to recognise this, and must start to incorporate all stakeholders’ positions into their campaigns. If there was a broader base of information on every aspect of palm oil production – good & bad – the consumer might be able to make more informed, and ethical, decisions about their response to the issues.