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Palm Oil Action Australia | December 18, 2017

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Should vegans eat palm oil? | Guardian Sustainable Business

  • On November 19, 2017

theguardian.com
Should vegans eat palm oil? | Guardian Sustainable Business
Oliver Balch
6-7 minutes

As marketing slogans go, NotFrom.com offers something aspirational. Stacked on the virtual shelves of this new online vegan supermarket are row upon row of “animal and planet cruelty free” products.

Only it’s not quite that simple. Yes, all of the products are plant-based and free from animal inputs. But, beyond this the line between what is and isn’t cruel to the planet gets hazy.

Palm oil is one ingredient that troubles Dana Levy and Peter Birrell, the husband and wife team behind NotFrom.com, who admit that 100% planet-friendly products are hard to come by.

“There’s an ongoing debate in the vegan community, with people saying they’re not going to buy products from animals but then they switch to products that include palm oil, which is a paradox [because] in a way they’re part of destroying the rainforests where orangutans and other animals are living,” says Levy.

Labour party leader admits he is ‘going through the process’ of not eating any animal-derived food but isn’t there yet

“If we were to try to source the perfect product, we’d probably only have about 20 products on [NotFrom.com],” says Birrell, whose site has filters for buyers, including “no palm”.
Cruelty-free?

Few ingredients highlight the planet-friendly dilemma more than palm oil. Found in everything from margarine to ice-cream, this ubiquitous vegetable oil is natural and plant-based, yet it’s also linked with the destruction of vast tracts of rainforest.

Including palm oil in a cruelty-free diet is “not a straightforward question”, admits Vegan Society’s spokeswoman Sam Calvert. Even so, it qualifies as vegan for the purposes of product labelling.

Its inclusion is not insignificant. Over the last four years, the number of vegan products launched in the UK has almost tripled, with nearly one in 10 new food brands making a vegan claim, according to market analysis firm Mintel.

Some vegan brands have opted for the zero-palm route. Ice-cream manufacturer Booja-Booja, for instance, ditched palm oil as an emulsifier in its products, opting for either agave or coconut syrup instead.

“We don’t feel that palm oil is necessary, and neither are many of the other extras you’ll find in other ice-creams, so we just don’t use it,” says Louise Collins, marketing coordinator at vegan-certified Booja-Booja.

Others continue to use palm oil, but only when it is sourced from sustainably-certified farms. Two big brands making a play in the vegan market are sandwich shop chain Pret a Manger and consumer giant Unilever. Both tell the Guardian that they too seek to use sustainable palm oil wherever possible.

Faith in Nature adopts a similar position. For over 100 tonnes of ingredients, the UK vegan cosmetic brand has either cut out palm oil entirely or replaced it with sustainably-certified palm oil.

But even a sustainable certificate does not always guarantee that there have been no negative environmental impacts in production. The industry’s sustainability body, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), last year suspended the certification of Malaysian palm company IOI over allegations of deforestation. While another RSPO member is under investigation, accused of clearing rainforest in Papua, Indonesia.
No perfect answer

With palm oil, like other vegetable oils, there’s no perfect answer. Any mass-produced agricultural commodity, however sustainably produced, will have a negative impact of some kind on the natural world.

This fact is not lost on Jonathan Petrides, co-founder of the vegan food delivery firm AllPlants, which has stripped palm oil out of 90% of its products.

Petrides is certainly no fan of unchecked palm oil production nor is he entirely convinced that certified palm oil is as sustainable as the industry claims, yet he’s wary about the implications of zero palm oil too.

“Palm oil has almost become like the devil and I think it’s awesome that people are campaigning for the rights of the rainforest … but let’s not kid ourselves that all the other plants we’re using are being picked from a bush and aren’t taking over habitats as well,” he says.

He believes palm could actually be better than alternative sources of vegetable oil such as sunflower oil, soya or rapeseed, which are less productive than palm oil and therefore require more land for the same amount of oil.

It’s time for a wider public debate about the planetary effects of modern methods of food production, says Emma Keller at environmental charity WWF. And palm oil’s inclusion (or not) in vegan diets could be an issue to kick it off, she adds.

“There’s a role for key [vegan] brands to move away from palm oil, but not if it means just creating the next vegetable oil boom, like with coconut oil,” says Keller. “So I think there’s a huge opportunity for them to start a conversation and move public opinion not just on palm oil but on other vegetable oils too.”

It’s an aspiration that the founders of NotFrom.com endorse. Big industry will only seriously invest in non-plant alternatives to palm oil, such as algae-based oils, when consumers start asking for them. And consumers will only do this when levels of public awareness increase.

“Lack of consumer awareness and action leaves us at the mercy of the larger food industry,” says Birrell, “which has proven itself to be callously impervious to the plight of the planet.”