Palm Oil — [Philip Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:42 pm on 10th December 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John McNally John McNally Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment) 4:42 pm, 10th December 2018

It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I express many and sincere thanks to Luke Hall for securing this debate on the sale of products containing palm oil, and congratulate him on getting through his speech.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution to such an important discussion. He has much more in-depth knowledge than me, although I am glad to have this opportunity to speak on an issue that is becoming more and more apparent in everyday life. What comes over loud and clear is that, for the planet’s sake, we must say no to palm oil. At a time when it is more important than ever to protect our environment, we have a widely used substance that is directly linked to catastrophic deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty and indigenous rights abuses in the countries in which it is harvested.

As a highly versatile conditioning agent, palm oil is the world’s most commonly used vegetable oil and roughly half of all packaged products in our supermarkets contain it, yet most people will have little idea of how it is produced. I believe that palm oil could be described as “the new plastic”, because of the damage that its production and everyday use do to the environment. Phasing it out will be a victory in the fight to save our rainforests and to protect wildlife—in particular, orang-utans and Sumatran tigers, both of which are endangered species. It is estimated that there are only about 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild. Both those wonderful species are put at needless risk through the production of palm oil.

The production of this substance epitomises all the worst things that humans are doing to the planet, and I hope that we are beginning to take notice. I applaud the frozen food retailer Iceland for its stance: it is committed to phasing out palm oil from 130 of its own-brand products until such time as there is a reliable global certification scheme that prevents deforestation. What struck me about this issue is the need to raise public awareness of it. That is why high-profile campaigns such as Iceland’s are crucial. It encouraged people to sign a petition on the use of palm oil. This petition was a worthy one to sign, as we can all see from the amounts of correspondence that we have had from our constituents.

As consumers, we can help to stop palm oil expansion by sourcing products that do not contain this substance and we must continue to put pressure on the companies that use it. Research by YouGov in March 2017 found that although 77% of respondents had heard of palm oil, there was a huge lack of clarity among the majority of people on whether it was being produced sustainably. Although palm oil may be all around us in everyday products, consumer awareness of its impact on the environment is scarce.

Some digital tools are being produced to allow shoppers to avoid palm oil or choose brands that use oil from certified sources—a huge step in the right direction. One example is the World Wildlife Fund palm oil buyers scorecard. On the awareness front, we can only applaud a company such as Iceland for its pledge to ban products with palm oil from its stores, but we need more big brands and suppliers to follow its lead. Last week, I met representatives of Waitrose at Westminster and I brought up the subject of palm oil in its products. Although it is doing everything it can to produce a reliable supply chain and it is making strides, it still has concerns about where it sources its goods from. Additional good news is that the Norwegian Parliament has voted to make Norway the world’s first country to ban its biofuel industry from importing this substance, starting in 2020. Green campaigners have celebrated that move as a victory, but as the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate said, there is still much more to do. We are at a pivotal moment and we must strike now.

Thanks to respected environmentalists such as David Attenborough—I hope we find another one very quickly—there is a willingness to take conservation very seriously. As we have touched on today, palm oil is a vegetable oil extracted from the fruit of oil palms and used in everything from food to cleaning products and fuel. By the way, I do not mean that there is anything wrong with David Attenborough; I just think that we need more people out there. He is doing an awful lot of work on his own and I think that he needs the support of many other people. I know that, on the ground, there are people coming through. I think that we need to promote them more and more, to get the message out.

The oil palm is mostly grown in Africa, Asia and North and South America. Thank goodness that in January 2018 the European Commission decided that the use of palm oil in biodiesel was to be phased out and banned as of 2021. Indonesia and Malaysia have voiced great displeasure, as this has been a huge market for them. They are the largest and second largest producers in the world respectively, producing 85% of the world’s palm oil, and the EU is one of the world’s largest importers. As of 2018, half the EU’s palm oil imports were being used for biodiesel. Such has been the outcry that the Malay Government lobbied the UK Government to oppose the ban, threatening to withdraw arms orders from UK companies. I think that I am right in saying that since the ban was announced, the UK has been lobbying for a planned EU-Indonesia trade deal. Perhaps the Minister can comment on that later.

Meanwhile, companies such as Unilever, the world’s largest palm oil buyer, use it for pharmaceuticals, chemicals, animal feed and processed foods and ingredients. It is looking into a sustainable palm oil strategy for its entire supply chain, which of course is good news. It plans to source all its raw palm oil from sources that meet RSPO certification standards, or standards that have been verified as equivalent by an independent third party, by 2019. That is crucial; it must be done by more companies and done in a hurry.

Cargill is, I believe, a company that uses palm oil in animal feed and processed food ingredients. It is an early member of the RSPO and implements a full supply chain sustainability plan with the help of The Forest Trust. Meanwhile, Fairtrade palm oil production has begun. There is a non-profit collaboration between stakeholders from the palm oil industry, and environmental and social non-governmental organisations, to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil.

While it is good that the palm oil problem is being looked at and ways forward discussed, we must ensure that there is no room for companies to find a way around green safeguards. The RSPO certification scheme has been criticised for its loopholes. For example, forest areas can still be cleared so long as they are not designated “high conservation value forest,” but the definition is far too vague and subject to interpretation. Companies can also buy sustainability credits, which let producers of unsustainably produced oil sell it as sustainable if they contribute towards an agricultural training fund. About 21% of the world’s production was covered by this arrangement in 2017. In addition, the EU is the only market where certified oil has been in high demand. Most of the oil produced is consumed in Asia.

Other hurdles include the risk that focusing on palm oil alone will only drive manufacturers to use other edible oil sources that are just as bad. Like the EU biomass ban, it could also send a message to producers that there is no point in adopting sustainable practices. This is a complex situation and difficult conversation, but we must face up to it. It urgently needs our attention and a solid plan to combat the assault on our planet. It must be brought to public attention that everyday choices made while shopping have a much wider impact. The message to producers must be that the mass use of palm oil cannot continue as at present, and a greener way must be found for the good of us all and future generations.

The world wants to change. More young people than ever are engaged in green issues, but we, the decision makers in this place, need to continue to raise awareness and make demands. We must never assume that big companies will adhere to doing the right thing. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.