Did Steve Bannon really come to Scotland?
I’M a human in a forest and I don’t know what to do. That was my feeling after seeing Iceland supermarket’s advert, an adapted Greenpeace film, and then looking into where we’re at globally in the fight against palm-oil related deforestation.
That story is at the heart of the advert that went viral last week after it looked set to be banned from television. It’s one that starts with Disney-like sweetness as a girl finds an orang utan in her bedroom, but turns dark and brutalist, as the “Rang-tan” tells the story of the burning of his forest to make way for a palm-oil plantation.
He, voiced by Emma Thompson, declares: “There’s a human in my forest and I don’t know what to do.”
It’s always difficult to know what to do about something going on at the other side of the planet, yet which we are, as consumers, part of. Yes, we know something must be done, and fast – not just for the sake of the orang utans, but for the wider planet since tropical forest loss accounts for 8 per cent of the world’s global CO2 emissions – but what? Iceland’s advert provides what seems like an answer in its end-titles. “Until all palm oil causes zero rainforest destruction,” it says, “we’re removing palm oil from all our own label products.” Ostensibly it seems a good move. Palm oil-related deforestation, after all, is a problem. Buying things that don’t contain it is surely a good idea. We can sign the petition, delivering Iceland its PR coup,
and head down to Iceland for our palmoil free Christmas goodies and feel smug.
But, though it starts the conversation, it’s barely the solution. For, even if we all became green shoppers and stopped buying anything with palm oil in, we wouldn’t become instantly decoupled from crop-related deforestation. It’s not just the palm oil in our processed foods that is the problem. It’s the palm protein meal in our animal feeds, the palm oil, until the recent EU ban, in our biofuel.
And even if we managed to eliminate it, we still wouldn’t have rid ourselves of the problem, for most likely what would happen is that palm oil would be replaced with another oil, and one that has as much, if not more, impact on the environment.
Many researchers and environmental groups have pointed out, a ban on palm oil could too easily just result in a shift in the global industry growing another crop that is even less sustainable, for instance soybean oil, which has a greater impact on the environment for less yield.
Four commodities – palm oil, soy, beef and paper and pulp – account for half of global deforestation.
So the problem here is not palm oil itself but what Greenpeace calls “dirty palm oil”. Given this, it would seem, the obvious answer is to push harder for a proper sustainable palm oil. But that goal, which is already been worked towards through certification, remains elusive. A report, for instance, earlier this year, by Imperial College London observed that genuinely“deforestationfree” palm-oil products were hard to guarantee because of the nature of the supply chains.
It has been predicted demand for palm oil is set to double by 2050. Where will this supply come from? Currently, 90% is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia.
But it’s speculated Africa may be a significant future producer, and researchers are concerned already about what that might mean for the primate populations in those areas. Meanwhile, in Brazil, president-elect Jair Bolsonaro has pledged to open the Amazon to economic development.
We humans are in a forest and it’s hard to know what to do. What’s clear is we can’t fight this merely by being green consumers. This is an issue that requires political will and overseeing – policies, perhaps, such as France’s recently announced strategy to ban all deforestation imports by 2030. Above all, though, we cannot afford to do nothing.
It’s not just the “Rang-tans” at stake, but the wider future of our planet and human and wildlife generations to come. In this context, the Iceland film isn’t just for Christmas, but for now and the coming decades. We should grasp it, before it’s too late.
Iceland’s palm oil advert shows up a wider conundrum as we try to protect our planet from exploitation