City AM: As Iceland rows back on palm oil, this is one slippery slope we should start to embrace

This article was published in City AM.

Supermarket chain Iceland announced this week that it had no choice but to go back on a pledge to avoid using palm oil as an ingredient in its own-brand product range. Managing director Richard Walker wrote in a blog post that Iceland could no longer afford to use sunflower oil, the palm oil alternative it plumped for in 2018, because its price has risen by 1,000 per cent as a result of war in Ukraine.

Ironically, the decision to switch back to palm oil will likely have a positive environmental impact, despite its reputation for assaulting the planet. While palm oil contributes to deforestation, it is the most land-efficient of the vegetable oils. By switching to alternatives like sunflower oil, manufacturers have to chop down lots more trees to produce the same amount of product. Palm oil production yields around 6-10 times more oil per hectare than other oils like sunflower, rapeseed, olive and soybean.

Palm oil’s anti-green reputation falls the moment you compare it to more resource-hungry oils. But the perception persists – except in times of crisis, it seems. Walker warned Iceland would otherwise be unable to offer much of Iceland’s usual product range. “I say this with huge regret,” Walker writes. “But the only alternative to using palm oil under the current circumstances would simply be to clear our freezers and shelves of a wide range of staples including frozen chips and other potato products.”

Now that Iceland has confirmed the current crisis is serious enough for us to dare to use palm oil to make breaded fish and frozen chips, perhaps this is the time for us to reconsider our side-lining of palm oil more broadly – particularly when it comes to fuel.

On palm oil and deforestation: regulators are failing, but so is the market

Along with skyrocketing food prices, perhaps the most impactful aspect of the inflationary and cost-of-living crisis on the average consumer will be fuel prices. Costs at the petrol pump have already soared to record highs, and given the geopolitical and economic situation, that does not look like changing any time soon.

As we try to extract ourselves from under Putin’s thumb and learn to heat our homes without relying on Russian fossil fuels we have talked no end about Saudi oil, solar power, wind power, domestic fracking and nuclear. But almost no one has mentioned biofuels.

There is no good reason why biofuels – such as palm oil – should be left out of the conversation. As of 2020, renewable fuels made up just 5.9 per cent of total road and non-road mobile machinery fuel – but most of that was biodiesel and bioethanol, with palm oil accounting for just 2.8 per cent of total supply as a feedstock.

Despite the obvious benefits of diversifying fuel sources, pressure from the green blob has continually driven regulators in the wrong direction, with Brussels leading the pack. The EU is set to progressively phase out palm oil as a biofuel source altogether by 2030, starting next year. As with Iceland’s sunflower oil switch, it seems likely that palm oil will be replaced by alternative products which are less land-efficient, and therefore contribute to deforestation on a greater scale.

Green virtue-signalling can often be harmless but when entire industries swear themselves off an irreplaceable product like palm oil, prices spike and the consequences for consumers are dire – especially during a crisis – and that’s before regulators get involved. From frozen food to biofuel, there are countless areas where quietly welcoming palm oil back into the fold would go a long way to alleviating the effects of the current crisis. Policy outcomes must overcome over-cautiousness about green PR.

City AM: On palm oil and deforestation, regulators are failing, but so is the market

This article was first published in City AM.

There are products which have become indispensable to our modern way of life, and few more so than palm oil. If its production were to grind to a halt tomorrow, entire supermarket aisles would be left empty. It features in countless everyday products whose availability we take for granted, from chocolate to deodorant. We are using it more than ever before. But we are faced with a problem: palm oil production is extremely bad for the environment, especially in terms of deforestation.

Banning it, as both the private sector and government regulators seem inclined to do, won’t solve the problem. In fact, it will likely make it even worse. Deforestation, like most environmental policy issues, requires long-term planning. The myopia of cracking down on issues’ immediate causes without thinking about what happens next has sadly become typical of short-termist politicians’ thinking. If we want to make a real difference, we must plan further ahead.

Perhaps inevitably, the tide of public opinion has begun to turn against palm oil, as awareness grows of its impact on the planet. Governments and companies have been making publicity pushes about the work they are doing to address the issue. Surveys find that people now see palm oil as much more harmful than similar oil products like soybean, sunflower, rapeseed and olive.

That shift in perception is fuelling knee-jerk responses in both the public and private sectors. Companies, including supermarkets like Ocado, are now going out of their way to help consumers avoid palm oil by introducing new ranges of palm oil-free products.

Meanwhile, state actors are not missing out on the chance for some environmental brownie points. The EU has banned palm oil as a biofuel. Local authorities in Indonesia, which produces much of the world’s palm oil, are also bringing down the hammer. Further crippling new regulations, important restrictions and usage bans around the world look unavoidable.

That’s especially true in the aftermath of COP26. Commitments on climate change were uninspiring – COP26 president Alok Sharma sobbed on stage as the underwhelming nature of the net-zero commitments achieved became apparent. He has since expressed fears that those achievements are becoming “just a bunch of meaningless promises.”

Perhaps the only notable success at COP26 was an agreement on deforestation, which leaders have pledged to bring to a halt by 2030. Palm oil, once again, was in the list of the key drivers of deforestation. But even banning its production overnight would not solve the issue. Unless we are to abandon consumerism, live in mud huts and survive exclusively on organic peace beans, we need oils to make the products we rely on every day.

If it isn’t palm oil, it will be an alternative like soybean or rapeseed, but that would not be an improvement. Palm oil supplies 40 per cent of the world’s vegetable oil on just 6 per cent of the land used for that purpose. Alternatives need 4 to 10 times more land. Moving away from palm oil will cause more deforestation, not less. Despite the unsustainability of palm oil production, buying it still makes sense because the market hasn’t changed – and that’s the problem.

The solution is innovation. New palm oils with lesser environmental impacts are available on the market, but they are shunned by its biggest users, such as food companies. The result is a new litany of expensive products, inaccessible to many, which skirt the now toxic “palm oil” name by using less efficient products which are even worse for the environment. More affordable products, in the meantime, continue using the same cheap, environmentally damaging palm oil as they did before.

Until powerful actors – both in the regulatory and in the private sector – look beyond environmental virtue-signalling and begin to practise what they preach, palm oil will continue to fuel deforestation. The cost of living and saving the planet will creep ever higher. We can’t afford to let that happen.

City AM: From junk food ad bans to new smoking bans, the UK is in an age of state intervention

This article was first published in City AM.

We have slipped into a new age of state intervention. Even after a year of unprecedented interference in our everyday lives, attacks on personal freedoms are emerging from every quarter. Take gambling, for example. The government’s review of the Gambling Act looks set to introduce new spend limits to dictate what people can and can’t do with their money, with some calling for it to be illegal to spend more than £100 per month.

Elsewhere in gratuitous growth of the state in the name of public health, the government has finally signed off on its plan to ban advertising for what it deems “junk food” in an effort to curb obesity, albeit a slightly watered-down version which promises not to criminalise family-run bakeries posting pictures of cakes on Instagram.

There is no disagreement whatsoever in the science on this. All the evidence demonstrates that it will do much more harm than good. The government’s own in-house analysis of the policy concluded that it will remove a grand total of 1.7 calories from children’s diets per day – roughly half a Smartie.

Nonetheless, keeping with the theme of following sentiment rather than science in public health, the junk food ad ban will sit alongside ineffective and punitive sugar taxes as part of the government’s wildly ill-informed interventionist obesity strategy – and its loudest critics are those suggesting it doesn’t go far enough.

Meanwhile, local authorities are queuing up to be the first to become “smoke-free: by imposing new restrictions on when and where people can smoke, starting with banning smoking for outside hospitality. These restrictions will culminate in the department of health’s plan to make England “smoke-free” by 2030.

That strategy was pioneered by Matt Hancock – it remains to be seen whether his successor, Sajid Javid, will continue down this road. Given the overall direction of the government, it would be extraordinary if he didn’t.

The World Health Organisation has declared war on vaping, and our government is listening – despite it being by far the most effective item in the tobacco harm reduction toolkit, given its remarkable record of doubling a smoker’s chance of quitting and weaning more people off cigarettes than any other method.

As if that wasn’t enough, the government is also gearing up to meddle unnecessarily with the big tech giants, with catastrophic consequences for freedom of expression online. The ominous new quango for tech regulation, the Digital Markets Unit, is gearing up for a fight. The government is also sticking by its online safety bill, despite the fact that it is a “censor’s charter” and will be “catastrophic” for freedom of speech, as David Davis put it.

Politicians seem fixated on changing people’s behaviours by following the doomed thirty-year-old playbook for tobacco regulation, failing to consider if it is still fit for purpose. After three decades, nanny statists, tax enthusiasts and red tape fetishists are still pushing the same disastrous policies, from outright bans on advertising to gratuitous health warnings on food packaging, and from excessive lifestyle taxes to enforced calorie counts on pints in pubs, punishing those who can least afford it and having little to no effect on public health outcomes.

What is even more alarming is much of this policy is being pushed by Boris Johnson, a conservative Prime Minister who fought vehemently against the tyranny of the European Union’s interventionist approach.

We desperately need backbench Tory MPs to stand up against the consensus forming between the government and opposition that rampant interventionism is the best way forward.

The Conservative benches have already given rise to many such rebellions. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group single-handedly ended Theresa May’s premiership and ensured the full delivery of Brexit. Since then, similar groups have appeared to campaign on Covid restrictions, China and the interests of red wall voters.

We now badly need another to push back against the hand of the big government. We need a Civil Liberties Research Group.

City AM: Boris Johnson’s interventionist obesity strategy will fail. We need more choice, not less to slim down

This article was first published in City AM.

Obesity is on the rise like never before. More than one in four people in the UK are now obese, one of the driving forces behind the mortality rate from Covid. In the year leading up to the pandemic, more than a million people were admitted to hospital for obesity-related treatment in England.

Record hospitalisations should be a wake-up call. Public health authorities on both an international and national level have failed to front up to the sheer scale of the challenge. Public Health England and the World Health Organisation are both indoctrinated with interventionist tunnel vision. For them, fighting obesity is banning things, taxing them out of existence, trying to manipulate consumers with intrusive campaigns and attempting to shame them into making “better decisions”.

Those charged with addressing public health issues are reading from the same tired hymn sheet of failed policies. They are trotting out twentieth-century ideas to deal with twenty-first-century problems and their failures have tragic consequences on an enormous scale.

The headline act in this appalling show is the government’s plan to ban junk food ads. The policy looks set to go ahead after being included in the Queen’s Speech, despite extensive campaigns calling attention to the problems with an overly intrusive approach, for the advertising industry and everyone else.

My mother, a working-class, immigrant single parent, runs a small baking business out of her kitchen. Under the mad ad ban plan, my mum posting pictures of her cakes on Instagram will become illegal. And for what? The government’s own analysis of the policy found that it will remove an average of 1.7 calories from children’s diets per day – roughly half a Smartie.

When asked about the case of a bakery with an Instagram account, the prime minister’s spokesperson was unable to offer any reassurances. A government source quoted in the Sunday Times earlier this year said: “there will be caveats – this is not aimed at small companies advertising home-made cakes online. It is aimed at the food giants.” It remains unclear how a blanket ban on a certain type of advertising can be legally targeted at some companies and not others.

The solution to the obesity crisis lies in more freedom of choice, not less. Even those evil food giants are responding to public pressure, keen to be seen making an effort in this area. McDonald’s, for instance, is providing five million hours of football training across the UK. Even Britain’s pubs play an important role, contributing more than £40 million every year to grassroots sports.

When people voice their concern en masse about a particular issue, private actors go out of their way to make themselves useful and do something about it. Countless companies are voluntarily investing in healthy lifestyle schemes or cutting back their own contributions to obesity. Tesco, for example, has laid out an ambitious plan to boost the proportion of its food sales which is made up of healthy products to 65 per cent, setting an example for the rest of the industry as the market shifts.

Attempts to centralise responses to public health crises in government and concentrate responsibility in Whitehall fail consistently. Tesco’s radical new agenda was not motivated by public health bureaucrats, but instead by demands from its own shareholders and pressure from competitors including Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer. While Public Health England is cracking down on Marmite ads and Instagram pictures of cupcakes, the group of people arguably doing more than anyone else to make Britain healthier are private corporate investors.

Companies and consumer choice are our allies, not our enemies, in the fight against obesity. Rather than trying to hold back the tide, let’s harness the power of the market to tackle obesity.