Richard Walker

Why is Iceland against palm oil?

Over the last week a number of lobbyists have asked me this question, and luckily I have a simple answer: we’re not against palm oil. What we are against is deforestation.

There are many perfectly valid arguments in favour of palm oil. It is very high yielding, versatile – and cheap. We are well aware that alternatives use more land to produce the same volume of vegetable oil, which is why we have taken care to establish the provenance of all the palm oil replacements we are using in our Iceland own label products.

The problem is that, precisely because it is such a useful product, demand for palm oil is growing exponentially. This is contributing directly to the continued destruction of the tropical rainforest, which is seriously bad news for local communities and wildlife, and for the ecosystem of our planet as a whole.

I went to West Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo myself last year, and saw at first hand the environmental devastation which is being wreaked there by illegal deforestation, industrial-scale draining of peat swamps, and manmade forest fires. Eliminating the rich biodiversity of the rainforest, displacing local people, and killing and brutalising wildlife, in order to create a sterile palm monoculture.

We are absolutely 100% behind the idea of sustainable palm oil and we recognise the huge amount of work that is being done by many NGOs, growers and food processors to deliver it. But progress is agonisingly slow and the rainforest continues to be destroyed at a truly alarming pace. In Indonesia alone 146 football pitches of rainforest are currently being destroyed every hour.  If we continue on our present track we can also be sure that this rate will accelerate, to meet global demand for palm oil that is projected to double by 2050.

For years we have insisted that all our 300+ own label suppliers use RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil in our products, but the evidence clearly shows that this has not stopped deforestation. Indeed, we are convinced that it is currently impossible to source palm oil for the mass market that does not risk further rainforest destruction.

Iceland is the UK’s smallest national food retailer, accounting for just over 2% of the total grocery market. Removing palm oil from our own label products will reduce global demand by no more than 1,000 tonnes a year. We recognise that our direct purchasing and lobbying power is relatively small, but we also know that we can punch above our weight by making important and symbolic ethical decisions.

That is what we have done on palm oil. We have invested £5 million of our own money so that we can end the use of palm oil as an ingredient in our own label food, and so give a choice to those consumers who share our concern about rainforest destruction. We also hoped that our move would increase public, political and industry awareness of the issue, encourage debate, and accelerate the delivery of genuinely sustainable palm oil for the mass market.

We have never called for a ban or boycott of palm oil: we have simply made our own decision not to be complicit in rainforest destruction until we are sure that the palm oil industry is actually achieving true sustainability.

There has certainly been no shortage of debate since we made our announcement, and I am pleased by the worldwide attention we have achieved. Like the critically endangered orang utan, Iceland has sounded an alarm call. We really hope that it is heard loud and clear by governments, NGOs and corporations, and that it helps to focus the thinking that is needed to deliver genuinely sustainable palm oil and zero deforestation.

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