Sustainable palm oil advocates don’t agree with Iceland’s palm oil ban

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil argues the impact of the alternatives is worse

Frozen food giant Iceland announced today its plans to stop the use of palm oil in all own-brand products by the end of this year. Used in more than half of its products – from biscuits to soap – the supermarket cited the oil’s devastating effects on tropical rainforests across southeast Asia.

The ban, sparked by Greenpeace campaigners and a visit to Borneo last year by managing director Richard Walker means Iceland is the first major supermarket in the UK to remove the oil from its shelves.

But is completely removing the globally ubiquitous oil from supermarket shelves the best solution? Some campaigners don’t think so.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the world’s largest palm oil certification scheme, argues Iceland’s move is not a long-term solution and does not tackle the issues at the heart of the problem.

The CEO of RSPO, Darrel Webber, said in a statement to the media: “We fully share Iceland’s concerns about the environmental impact of palm oil, but we do not agree with the solutions they are adopting. Before getting rid of palm oil, we should ask ourselves: what is the impact of the alternatives? We should let consumers know that palm trees produce 4 to 10 times more oil per hectare than any other oil crop. Therefore eliminating palm oil might lead to the use of more land with higher risks of deforestation.”

The not-for-profit association RSPO brings together 3700 producers, traders, manufacturers and NGOs from 91 different countries to develop global standards for sustainable palm oil. It argues the social and environmental concerns around palm oil are not as simple as just pulling use and production completely.

Iceland’s managing director Richard Walker, however, contested ideas of sustainable palm oil, today saying: “We don’t believe there is such a thing as guaranteed ‘sustainable’ palm oil available in the mass market, so we are giving consumers a choice to say no to palm for the first time.”

Sustainable palm oil is certified by the RSPO NEXT certification, a voluntary effort on the part of RSPO member companies, when it meets certain requirements, including production and development that involves no deforestation, no peat development and no exploitation.

Despite being a very productive crop, the demand for palm oil has resulted in the deforestation of critical habitats for many endangered animals according the WWF, with around 90 per cent of the world’s palm oil grown on just a few islands in Malaysia and Indonesia. The pollution extends to air, soil and water in these areas, with forest fires to clear vegetation and fires in peat areas particularly damaging.

The WWF argues that better management practices, ensuring a guaranteed level of sustainability could ensure we still benefit from the palm oil industry, without threatening the environment, habitats and the animals who call it home.

With around 60 million tonnes of palm oil produced globally every year and Iceland’s ban set to cut only 500 tonnes a year – the future of palm oil still has a long way to go. Perhaps the message this ban sends to the public will be more powerful than the physical effect of the ban in an of itself.

Update: This article has been amended to correct information regarding RSPO’s NEXT sustainable palm oil certification scheme.

Main image: Icaro Cooke Vieira/CIFOR and iStock