A Christmas advertisement deemed too political to air in the U.K. but that has been viewed more than 70 million times online has rekindled the debate about how to save orangutans from going extinct: should consumers boycott products containing palm oil?
In one corner is the British supermarket chain Iceland, which earlier this year announced it would remove all palm oil from its own-brand products until producers could genuinely deliver on commitments to no deforestation.
Iceland “repurposed” a commercial originally made by Greenpeace for its traditional pre-Christmas campaign. Due to its links with the well-known campaigning group, the ad was considered by the country’s broadcast adviser to be in contravention of political advertising rules. (Though no broadcaster would run it because of this, it was not technically banned.)
“Until all palm oil causes zero deforestation, we’re removing it from our own-label products,” Iceland says at the end of the advert.
In fact, Iceland has now done this, replacing it with rapeseed oil (grown in the U.K.), olive oil, butter and, in products such as pies, lard.
Iceland says the animation about “Rang-tan,” an orangutan making a mess of a girl’s bedroom, which is contrasted with humans destroying the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, is now the most-watched Christmas ad ever.
In the other corner are industry groups and many wildlife NGOs who say a palm oil boycott could do more harm than good.
“Across the board, most NGOs working on this issue are in agreement that a blanket boycott of palm oil is not the solution for the conservation of orangutans,” Michelle Desilets, of the Orangutan Land Trust, said at a symposium in London organized by the Ape Alliance.
A number of factors underlie their opposition to a boycott. The oil palm is the most efficient producer of vegetable oil on the planet, delivering between three and eight times greater yields than any other crop for the same area of land. Based on forecasts for global cooking oil use between 2013 and 2025, a report published by the Great Ape Survival Partnership (GRASP) in 2016 said that to replace the projected demand for palm oil with soybean oil would require planting an additional 850,000 square kilometers (328,000 square miles) of soy — an area almost the size of Pakistan.
Desilets said a boycott by Iceland, which used less than 1,000 tonnes a year out of global production of nearly 70 million tonnes, would have a negligible impact. “We are not going to condemn a person for making a personal choice to avoid palm oil,” she said, “but we are going to inform people that this is not going to have the effect they might have been led to believe.”
One key issue, Desilets said, is that the biggest national markets for palm oil are China, India and Indonesia, where there’s less consumer pressure on the industry to reduce its impact on the environment. Consumption of palm oil in Asia, for example, is roughly 2.5 times that of Europe and the Americas put together.
If retailers and consumers really want to make a difference, the best thing they can do is to put pressure on the industry to use only palm oil not linked to deforestation, Desilets said. Even if the majority of consumers aren’t calling for deforestation-free palm oil, a vocal minority can be enough to push producers to comply with the rules of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the industry’s leading standards council, thereby cleaning up the entire supply chain.
Despite being responsible for the original ad, Greenpeace said it was not calling for a boycott of palm oil either. “What Iceland has done is very clearly raised the debate on palm oil,” a spokesperson said. “What they’re saying is, ‘This is a huge problem, what can we do about it?’”
“We are not anti-palm oil, we are anti-deforestation,” Richard Walker, Iceland’s joint managing director, told Mongabay.
But he criticized the RSPO, saying there was a good reason why people joked that the letters stood for Really Slow Progress Overall. “It’s the entire industry, from mills to retailers, a club of everyone,” Walker said. “Conversations go round and round in circles, and that’s why standards have not been high enough.”
Walker is not the only critic of the RSPO. Analyses by organizations including the Zoological Society of London have found that RSPO members companies often fall short of their commitments and that enforcement of standards is low. And recent research — disputed by the RSPO — found that RSPO-certification made “no significant difference” in the environmental, social and economic impacts of palm oil plantations in Indonesian Borneo.
On Dec. 10, the palm oil issue reached the British parliament, where MPs debated an e-petition calling for a “ban [on] the sale of products containing unsustainably sourced palm oil in the UK.” The petition garnered much greater support following the release of Iceland’s Christmas advert.
Opening the debate, the Conservative MP Luke Hall acknowledged the impact that unregulated palm oil production had had on Southeast Asia’s forests and wildlife. “A study in [the peer-reviewed journal] Current Biology found that 100,000 orangutans have died as a direct result of deforestation in the past 16 years due to palm oil,” Hall told MPs.
In fact, while the paper did say 100,000 orangutans were lost between 1999 and 2015, it found that most disappeared from primary and selectively logged forests, suggesting that hunting is also a significant driver of decline.
Hall added that most experts believed a “total ban on all products containing palm oil, such as the one implemented by the supermarket chain Iceland” would have an adverse impact on global biodiversity because of the need to produce the same amount of yield from less efficient crops.
Speaking for the Scottish National Party (SNP), John McNally MP, backed Iceland’s stance. “To phase [palm oil] out would be a victory to save our rainforest, and to protect wildlife, orangutans and Sumatran tigers in particular,” McNally said. “We need more big brands and suppliers to follow [Iceland’s lead].”
There are other issues to consider, though. New research reveals that orangutans can survive in landscapes partially or mainly given over to oil palm plantations. “Orangutans are highly adaptive,” Marc Ancrenaz, scientific director of HUTAN, the Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Programme based in Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, told Mongabay. “Our research indicates they can move through large areas of palm-oil, as long as there is some natural forest there too.”
Ancrenaz said it was hard to give a figure, but suggested that at least 10 to 20 percent of a region needed to be retained as natural forest for orangutans to survive.
This may be highly significant, because according to research led by the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry, 80 percent of the great apes in Borneo live outside protected areas.
On the other hand, what’s good enough for orangutans may not be good enough for everyone. The palm oil industry is implicated in land grabs from indigenous peoples, a problem retaining some forest cover won’t solve. And not all wildlife can survive in degraded forests. “Gibbons are less adaptable,” Ancrenaz said. “They won’t survive in anything other than rainforest. They don’t walk on the ground and they are highly territorial.”
Global demand for palm oil is also endangering great apes and threatening the land rights of indigenous peoples outside of Southeast Asia. GRASP found that more than 40 percent of the distribution of gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos in Africa overlapped with land suitable for palm oil development. It warned that 26,000 square kilometers (10,000 square miles) of land in West and Central Africa has been, or is in the process of being, developed into oil palm plantations, and much of this is forested and home to great apes.
So what does Ancrenaz think of Iceland’s move? “A boycott is not necessarily the answer, but the industry is moving forwards because of the pressure being put on it,” he said. “If nobody complained, nothing would change.”
Iceland’s Richard Walker conceded that the industry was changing, pointing to a pledge by the world’s largest palm oil producer, Wilmar, to eliminate deforestation through satellite monitoring of all its plantations by the end of 2019. He also welcomed a new set of RSPO standards announced in mid-November, that completely banned forest clearing (previous standards allowed companies to cut secondary forest and some peat forest).
“I hope in some small way we have played a part in that,” Walker said. “I want consumers to know they do have power. When 70 million people watch a video [about the impacts of palm oil], that starts to move the needle.”
But the industry is still far from perfect. “I’ve been to West Kalimantan [in Indonesian Borneo], and I’ve seen sustainably certified palm oil producers chopping down rainforest and planting on peat,” Walker said.
Greenpeace UK agrees with Walker, saying the RSPO’s strict new “no deforestation” criteria –though welcome –could take two years to make a difference on the ground. So what should the conscientious consumer do?
“Consumers need to lobby big brands like Mondelez and Unilever to drop suppliers linked to deforestation,” said Greenpeace UK forests campaigner Richard George. “These brands have signed in support of Wilmar –the world’s largest trader –committing to map and monitor everyone in its supply chain. There’s no excuse for them not to demand the same of all the other companies they buy palm oil from.”