In recent months, much of the green lobby has been focussing its ire on palm oil. If it were up to the lobby, importing and using this common vegetable oil would be banned overnight. In fact, the European Union has already done something similar, and is working on a total palm oil import ban. Around the world, eco-socialists are declaring war on palm oil. But why?
Palm oil is one of those products whose importance is inversely proportional to the amount of attention it gets. You might not have heard of it, or know very little about it, but if it disappeared you would miss it. Palm oil is absolutely essential in keeping our shelves fully stocked with food and cosmetics. It is used to make everything from chocolate to deodorant.
Why, then, is the green lobby so keen to extricate it from American stores and households? As is so often the case, it is pushing a shortsighted government intervention that, in fact, would both hurt consumers and produce worse outcomes for the environment.
Much of the political left is determined to tie palm oil to deforestation. Its adherents declare with great confidence that palm oil is responsible for the chopping down of tropical rainforests. But this flies in the face of the facts.
Palm oil is by far the most land-efficient of all the vegetable oils. Others oils like sunflower, soybean, rapeseed and olive require between six and 10 times more land to produce the same amount of oil, meaning you have to chop down a lot more trees to get the same result. That also, of course, makes those other oils much more expensive than palm oil, which is particularly important during a global food price crisis.
Despite catering to more than a third of the world’s entire vegetable oil demand, palm oil accounts for just 6 percent of the cultivated land used for vegetable oil production. The entire global palm oil industry is responsible for less than 4 percent of global deforestation and — according to Global Canopy, an environmental nongovernmental organization — palm oil supply chains are doing a much better job than companies in other sectors at preventing deforestation.
Even the World Wildlife Fund agrees: The best thing we can do is support sustainable palm oil and avoid boycotts, since we know substitutions with other vegetable oils can lead to even further environmental and social harm.
If they cared about achieving results for nature and the planet, the green lobby would take a more nuanced stance, pushing for greater sustainability in palm oil production. Instead, believing that only governments and not markets can provide solutions to issues like this, the lobby insists on an outright ban without a thought to what comes next. Ninety percent of the palm oil imported to Europe is officially certified as sustainable, meaning it is not contributing to harmful deforestation — but that won’t stop the European Union slapping an ill-considered blanket ban on it.
If we are not careful, that same myopic thinking could take hold in the United States. Politicians who are active in this area are so wrapped up in their virtue-signaling — letting the world know how keen they are to save the planet — that they forget to think about whether the policies they are pushing would actually achieve that.
It’s not just among lawmakers, either — even in the private sector, there is an increasing volume of self-congratulatory stores and outlets boasting about not using palm oil in their products, despite the fact that switching away from palm oil results in their products being both more costly and more damaging to the environment.
The virtue-signaling on this issue is so blatant that Iceland, a United Kingdom supermarket chain, even went so far as to make a TV commercial on the issue, in case anyone missed how environmentally conscious they are. In 2018, to mark their announcement that they were removing palm oil from their own-brand products, Iceland teamed up with Greenpeace to make a short film portraying them as literally saving orangutans’ lives through their sacrifice. The ad was then banned from British screens for being too political.
Ironically, earlier this year, Iceland was forced to row back on its promise and start using palm oil again because the fallout from the war in Ukraine made other products like sunflower oil too expensive for a budget supermarket chain to afford. Still, Iceland boss Richard Walker once bizarrely boasted about being a hypocrite on green issues during an interview with the Guardian, so the U-turn may not have been so difficult for him after all.
When it comes to deforestation, palm oil is the solution, not the problem. Until left-leaning virtue-signalers take the time to look at the data, their war on palm oil risks making deforestation much worse for no good reason.