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Ban on palm oil could harm the planet, warns scientist

A palm oil boycott could actually increase deforestation, according to a University of Kent scientist.

Dr Jake Bicknell has studied the impact of a shift in production and is concerned that although the current public conversation over palm oil has brought welcome attention to the issue of sustainability, the PR fallout may lead to unintended consequences.

The international debate on palm oil has intensified since supermarket Iceland’s Christmas advert was barred from being broadcast on the basis it would have breached political advertising laws as it was originally produced by Greenpeace.

The advert, which has amassed over 30 million views online, shows orangutans losing their home as a result of massive deforestation to meet the world’s demand for palm oil which can be found in everything from shampoos and soaps, to pizzas and biscuits. It is also used for biofuel.

Dr Jake Bicknell

Retailers now face increasing pressure to reduce the sale of palm oil products or boycott them altogether.

But Dr Bicknell, an expert in tropical forests based at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent, believes a ban will actually lead to more problems for forests and wildlife, and could cause an increase in deforestation.

Talking to the Journal, Bicknell explained: “put simply, boycotted palm oil would need to be replaced by other types of vegetable oil to meet the global demand – and that could actually make matters worse.

“This is because, compared to other common sources of vegetable oil – such as rapeseed and soybeans – palm oil crops yield four to ten times more oil per unit of land and require far less pesticide and fertiliser.

“In fact, palm oil makes up 35% of the global demand for vegetable oil, but takes up just 10% of the land used to produce it.”

An alternative to an outright ban exists in the form of certification, a mechanism by which consumers pay higher prices for responsibly-sourced products.

A number of large brands and retailers including Nestlé, Unilever and Sainsbury’s are already using certified palm oil in their products, but cannot advertise it due to the public backlash against all forms of the product.

As a result, only 20% of the world’s palm oil production is sourced in this way.

Environmentally-conscious readers can check to see how some of their favourite retailers are performing using this online scorecard provided by the World Wildlife Fund.

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