Palm oil producers 'misled' over green claims

Martin Hickman,Consumer Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 09 September 2009 10:51 BST

The palm oil industry misled the public by claiming production of the vegetable fat was sustainable and socially useful, according to an official investigation.

In a ruling today, the Advertising Standards Authority upheld four complaints against a magazine advert by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) intended to counter environmental and human rights criticism of its record.

Plantations producing palm oil for food, household products and biofuels have destroyed swathes of rainforest on the Indonesian and Malaysian islands of Sumatra and Borneo, evicting indigenous tribes and threatening orangutans and other endangered species.

In a magazine advert headed ‘Palm Oil: The Green Answer’, MPOC claimed the oil was the only global crop able to meet growing demand for food and fuel sustainably and efficiently. It claimed the industry followed high environmental standards and referred to its founding membership of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), “which defines standards and monitoring criteria for the sustainable production and use of palm oil”.

MPOC suggested that Western criticism of palm oil was motivated by a commercial desire to safeguard domestic oils. “A number of criticisms have been levelled at Malaysia's palm oil industry, from accusations of rampant deforestation and unsound environmental practices to unfair treatment of farmers and indigenous people,” it said.

“These allegations – protectionist agendas hidden under a thin veneer of environmental concern – are based neither on scientific evidence, nor, for that matter, on fact.”

Friends of the Earth (FOE) complained that the advert gave the impression that all Malaysian palm oil was produced to RSPO standards, challenged whether it was produced to high environmental standards and questioned whether biofuels helped local people and the planet. On development, it challenged MPOC’s claim that palm oil played an important role in industrialisation and alleviation of poverty, especially in rural communities.

Backing the complaints, the ASA said there was “concern” that palm oil production caused greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation and that its impact on the environment was contentious and difficult to measure. Although the ad had implied that all Malaysian producers were in the RSPO, only some sought certification and even then the scheme was controversial.

The suggestion that opposition to biofuels was wholly unfounded was unreasonable given that the Gallagher review ordered by the British Government had found that biofueld could hurt the poor by raising food price; there was a division of informed opinion on the issue, the ASA said.

It acknowledged that palm oil had diversified the Malaysian economy, but added there was no consensus on whether it was helping Malaysians.

A previous ASA investigation into a similar claim made by MPOC concluded that ‘the claim 'sustainable' was likely to mislead’. The ASA said: “We were concerned that MPOC had repeated the claim ‘sustainable’...”

In a series of articles in May, The Independent chronicled the impact of palm oil on forests, wildlife and tribes and revealed its widespread use in products on sale in the UK such as KitKat, Wrigley’s, Hovis and Persil.

According to WWF, less than one per cent of global palm oil production is certified by the RSPO. So far only Unilever, Sainsbury’s and the Body Shop have bought it in any significant quantity.

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