The Oil Palm The Oil Palm

The Apology that Oil Palm Growers Need to Hear

NGOs and campaign groups rarely admit that they are wrong. They almost never admit that an industry that they have been campaigning against is right.

But that is effectively what the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) – a US-based campaign group – has done in relation to palm oil.

UCS has pointed out that palm oil is not the environmental bogeyman that NGOs have made it out to be. Why? Because it is not a major contributor to global deforestation.

What has tipped UCS over is a report by Climate Focus, written for signatories to the New York Declaration on Forests. It pointed out that commodities such as beef, soybean and maize have a significantly higher deforestation footprint than palm oil. In the case of beef, it’s around 10 times bigger.

Much of this is based on work previously undertaken by the European Commission, which looked at the deforestation footprints of various commodities.

The MPOC has been writing on this topic and pointing out the European Commission data since it was released.

But the mea culpa from UCS has much larger implications for environmental campaigning.

As UCS states: “a recent study indicates that that global corporations that have committed to ending the deforestation they cause, have got their priorities backwards. And it suggests that the NGO community—and that definitely includes me—may have had our priorities wrong too.”

The Climate Focus study points out that palm oil companies have made significantly bigger commitments to zero deforestation than any other commodity group, despite being a much lower contributor to deforestation.

A question for organisations like UCS and the broader NGO and campaigning community is whether this means they will cease their absurd campaign against palm oil and whether they will actually apologise for some of the claims they have made.

A bigger question, though, is the funding associated with NGO campaigns.

The Climate and Land Use Alliance, a coalition of US-based foundations, has funded a wealth of activity aimed at palm oil. A look at their Global Grants list indicates that they have spent more than USD 13 million campaigning on palm oil across 38 funded projects – including USD 3 million for Greenpeace.

Compare this with their spending in the same list on soybean: five projects, totalling USD 2.5 million. And compare this with spending on beef and cattle: USD 759,000. These beef projects weren’t even exclusively beef projects; they looked at different commodities.

A lot of this funding is still ongoing. Greenpeace is in the middle of a USD1 million grant directed at palm oil. So is Rainforest Action Network. Friends of the Earth is in the middle of a USD400,000 grant.

It’s no wonder the campaigning against palm oil and the subsequent commitments have been skewed: there was simply more money thrown at it.

There are also other factors. Where palm oil can be substituted for competing oils, beef cannot be substituted for anything. The largest beef producers in the world are the US and the EU. A campaign against beef is simply not politically tenable in those countries.

In the EU, palm oil can be substituted with competing European oils such as sunflower and rapeseed. Generating an environmental case against palm oil – which is really only grown in two countries that are not major trading partners – is a no-brainer for those industries.

But this isn’t the first time that environmentalists have declared war on a particular industry and got the underlying facts wrong.

During the 1990s and most of the 2000s, campaigners concentrated heavily on the timber industry. There was an assumption that timber demand was leading to global forest loss. This resulted in campaigns against paper products and an entire industry of consultants working on illegal logging policy. But it wasn’t timber demand that was the problem: it was the need to grow food.

There is little downside for NGOs if they are wrong.  Greenpeace claimed for a long time that tropical deforestation was responsible for around 25 per cent of global emissions. The estimate is now much closer to 10 per cent. Greenpeace would no doubt justify this by saying it brought attention to the issue.

But in the case of palm oil, erroneous information has harmed the commodity’s reputation, and impacted the lives of the 3 million small farmers who grow it.

They are the people that need the apology.