The campaign against palm oil is ever-evolving. In the 1980s and 1990s, the US soybean lobby campaigned on health grounds. Since 2000, the campaign shifted to environmental concerns, largely supported by the rapeseed and sunflower industries in Europe and led by radical Green NGOs.
In recent years this has taken on a new and more comprehensive approach. Its clear objective is to make palm oil ‘socially unacceptable’. This new approach has been aggressive: even Prince Harry has been drawn into the debate, arguing recently that palm oil should be as socially unacceptable as cigarettes.
Harry’s misinformed comments reveal the tactics of the anti-palm oil campaign. It is the same tactic that radical campaigners have used to good effect to shut down and restrict other products that they object to. Palm oil is now in their sights, and they have a clear playbook.
The first part of the campaign is well underway. That is the push to make palm oil consumption more visible – to give them an easy-to-see target. This has already happened in food in many countries. There was considerable pressure to have palm oil specifically labelled in Europe, which has been implemented in law. Lobbying by NGOs is now focused on bringing that transparency to bear in the United States and Australia and New Zealand.
Once palm oil can be easily seen and identified by consumers through labelling, the second, more insidious, part of the campaign takes off. This is to push for products to be free of palm oil: the results of this can be seen in the proliferation of No Palm Oil labels by companies across Europe.
These labels, though, are clearly illegal. There are rules governing the use of negative claims in food labelling in the EU and Australia. There needs to be a justifiable case as to why something can be labelled ‘free’ of a particular product. In most cases this is for health reasons, e.g. dairy or soy. Dairy and soy are both sources of allergens. Hydrogenated soybean oil is a major source of trans fats. This does not apply to palm oil, which is not an allergen.
The real goal is to poison the minds of consumers against palm oil: when enough products indicate and advertise that they do not contain a specific product, consumers begin to see that product as ‘socially unacceptable’ to consume.
This campaign has even been openly admitted by some campaigners – in an article late last year; the author posited a hypothetical situation where consumers would eat crackers containing palm oil in secret.
The arguments used by the anti-palm oil campaigners remain weak. First, there is the health case. As stated above, this case is tenuous and has been tried over a 30 year period. New evidence has closed this case comprehensively from a scientific perspective. The NGOs, however, do not care for science.
Second, there is the environmental case. Environmental justification for avoiding palm oil has taken on many guises. It has gone through the wildlife conservation case, the climate change case, the peat case and more recently the fire and haze case. In all these cases, claims by campaigners have been rebutted with evidence. Once again, what they lack in evidence, the campaigners make up with persistence. If a message is repeated enough, people will simply accept it.
Third – and this is the newest part of the campaign – is the attempt to make a social case against palm oil. Most recently, attacks have been made on palm oil for links to child labour, human rights abuses and property rights infringements.
This last part of the campaign is particularly dangerous, and has been focused on audiences in the United States. It must be urgently dealt with if palm oil is to avoid this narrative becoming as ingrained as the environmental narrative is in Europe.
In most of these cases, there are no distinctions made between the sources of the palm oil whether companies or countries. The target is the commodity itself.
And as is often the case in Western markets, people don’t necessarily need legitimate reasons to think something is unacceptable. If they are convinced by consistent NGO and media claims that a product is socially or morally unacceptable, they will ignore scientific evidence and legal rulings. The campaigners now plan to inflict the same socially unacceptable fate onto palm oil.
Tobacco, of course, is the ultimate socially unacceptable product. Prince Harry’s comments were not an accident: the comparison with tobacco is the dream of palm oil’s opponents. This is how they would like palm oil to be treated: taxed, restricted, ostracised.
The weak arguments against palm oil haven’t changed. But neither has the determination of opponents. What has changed is that there is now a concerted plan using all methods available to send palm oil down the same, well-travelled path to social banishment that has been suffered by other products, such as tobacco. The palm oil industry must act fast to avoid this fate.