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Palm Oil is a symptom, not a cause célèbre

A cartoon orangutan swings from the destruction of her rainforest to the bedroom of a child, while Emma Thompson reads us a poem about how palm oil production is responsible for felling her home.

It's a powerful minute and a half, one which has already been viewed and shared millions of times on social media. Since the decision of the UK's 'advertising industry advisory body' not to approve the advert for television, the cartoon has gained the kind of scrutiny that may not have come had it been passed. Getting a work banned can sometimes be the best type of publicity.

Palm oil seems a strange choice of 'unique selling point' for Iceland, the British supermarket chain which relies almost entirely on cross-border shipments of highly processed food, which it stores in energy-intensive freezers. But that is what the frozen-food company is doing. In advertising the fact that their own-brand foods will no longer contain any palm oil, they are trying to position themselves as an 'environmentalist choice' for grocery shopping.


Iceland's monkey advert had made quite a splash on the internet
(Source: Iceland)

Iceland is by no means the first company to try and make marketing hay from palm oil. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is a 'multi-stakeholder not-for-profit' organisation that brings multinational corporations like Unilever, Bayer and Shell around the same table (not necessarily round) as charities like WWF and the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. Together, they have come up with a system of monitoring and certification which seems designed to please university researchers and certification boards, rather than make much meaningful difference to the destruction of ancient habitats or the spread of intensively farmed monocultures. The paper trail is everything in these kinds of accreditation schemes, as is the ability to employ decent auditors to keep track. Certification is there for accountants, not for the peasants who may once have lived on what-is-now a palm oil plantation. Yet having these green groups on board (Greenpeace is a member of a different but similar initiative on palm oil), means the companies can point to their 'partners' and claim they are doing everything they can.

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The palm oil industry has plenty of supporting material in academia; there are dozens of papers showing how it is actually the most efficient choice of oils, on a basic litre-per-hectare comparison. What these calculations cannot do is take a systems approach which will end up critical of the entire industrialised food business. This should not be a question of substitution, but of finding ways of stopping those destructive practices which make so much money for we-don't-know who. That's to say, the problems of palm oil cannot be calculated on the back of a fag packet.

One thing that's certain is that we won't resolve this crisis through changing one ingredient in a frozen pizza. Palm oil is used in almost every food or cleaning product you buy, it's in your lipstick, your shampoo, your washing detergent, maybe even in the fuel tank of your car if you buy bio-diesel (again often sold as a more 'environmental' choice). The global merry-go-round of foodstuffs and products mean this one ingredient can now be found all over the world. And supply is having to grow considerably to keep up with demand. Some estimates claim that 300 football pitches of virgin forest are being destroyed every hour for palm oil production.

This destruction comes in many guises, from the shovel of a bulldozer to forest fires which take everything with them as they go. That new palm oil plantations are often constructed on beds of peat, which is drained to allow the new trees to thrive, simply increases the risk of forest fires. Dried peat is highly flammable.

The effects of forest-fires can be devastating for more than just the people, animals and plants that used to live in the forests. Old growth rainforests are important carbon sinks, their soils and ecosystems sequester huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that would otherwise end up in the atmosphere. By destroying such great swathes of nature, we are actively impeding the Earth's capacity to recover from the coming climate catastrophe.

If we live in a society based on free choice, then where is the choice to stop this from happening? Among all those different-coloured plastic bottles that fill our supermarket shelves, where is the choice to do no harm? How can I be to be responsible for my actions when the society in which I live constrains me so tightly? Why should I change when all those other people are doing what they want?

The last is the most common of those questions. It displays a mindset that people are exercising their free and best choice when they buy that product they saw advertised on television a few hours before. Our industrialised system makes slaves of consumers as well as producers. Freeing ourselves from this web is the opposite of keeping up with the Joneses, it is as an emancipatory act of loosening the chains of consumption, which force us to work all our lives to afford things that are either overpriced or useless.

The solutions will never be sold in commercials or on a state broadcast. They won't be found in massive technical projects nor in some great money-making scheme. The greatest changes we can make to the world around us come in all the little everyday things: finding time to cook with local and seasonal ingredients, making your own detergents or soap, giving up your car if you possibly can, and seeing all the money you save by being freed of those expenses. It involves learning again to talk to people, to tell how you're making a difference. It involves acts of kindness and building a society fit for your kids. It starts, and it ends, with you.

Adam R. Mathews,
Salamanca, 18th November 2018

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