Minister's remarks attacked
French Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy Minister Ségolène Royal recently came under fire for comments she made on Nutella and palm oil. In an interview on the French television network Canal+, she called on the public to stop eating the well-known chocolate spread produced by Italian food giant Ferrero.
Her reason? A misguided wish to save the planet. “We have to replant a lot of trees because there is massive deforestation that also leads to global warming. We should stop eating Nutella for example, because it’s made with palm oil,” she claimed, adding the allegation that “oil palms have replaced trees, and therefore caused considerable damage to the environment”.
Such a misunderstanding and lack of basic knowledge about palm oil and forest protection is surprising given that Royal is the Minister for environmental issues. She will also play a central role in planning the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change from Nov 30 to Dec 11, to be held in Paris.
Some media observers in France were less surprised. Royal is well-known in France for her embarrassing and unguarded comments in the media. Yet, this doesn’t make her remarks on palm oil and Nutella less inappropriate.
The oil palm is recognised globally as the most productive, land-efficient oilseed crop with yields of up to 10 times that of competing oilseeds such as soybean. Substituting oil palm would cause greater damage to the environment. These facts – and many others – were made to the Minister, loudly, following her unwise remarks which spread worldwide within a few hours, creating headlines and causing substantial negative publicity for her.
Those from Italy – the home of Nutella – were certainly the most outraged. Many politicians and opinion leaders reacted with indignation to Royal’s remarks, defending Nutella for being unfairly demonised, and accusing the Minister of being protectionist and of not knowing her facts.
Italy’s Environment Minister Gian Luca Galletti was one of the first to rebut his French counterpart. Commenting on Twitter, he said: ‘Ségolène Royal is baffling. Leave Italian products alone. For dinner tonight … it’s bread with Nutella.’ It was a strong show of support and defiance – both for Nutella and for palm oil.
Agnese Renzi, the wife of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, went the following day to the Milan Expo – the world exhibition taking place in northern Italy – and was filmed by Italian media ordering a pancake filled with Nutella for her daughter Ester. Italian support was confirmed, and opposition to Royal grew further.
Scientists and academic experts across Europe joined the fray.
French cardiologist Dr Guy-André Pelouze, in an interview with the French media hub Atlantico, was very critical: “Palm oil, a vegetable oil, is not dangerous for health and is recognised as such. The only rational comment that the current situation inspires from me is that I am amazed that some people are picking on fats which are neutral [palm oil] and that the same people leave us to the production, use and consumption of trans fatty acids!”
He underlined how assertions that palm oil and saturated fats are “repeated like a leitmotiv, often by people who have not studied the issue, even though it is false”.
In a letter published in French major newspaper Le Figaro, another European – the agronomist Pierre Bois d’Enghien – criticised Royal for calling on Ferrero to substitute palm oil with other ingredients.
Mr Bois d’Enghien wrote directly to the Minister, according to French newspaper Le Figaro, and explained that the oil palm is the most land-efficient oilseed crop ‘producing 8-10 times more vegetable oil per hectare than other oil crops (…) The use of other raw materials would lead to greater land clearing, less biodiversity and of course more use of herbicides and pesticides’.
The Malaysian Palm Oil Council also responded strongly. CEO Dr Yusof Basiron, wrote that ‘Minister Royal is flat wrong, and is misleading the French and European public. The Malaysian palm oil industry needs public confirmation from the French government that Minister Royal’s comments do not reflect official French government policy towards palm oil’.
Dr Yusof would have his wish. In only a few days, the public and media backlash forced Royal to back down in public.
On Twitter, she sheepishly retracted her remarks, saying: ‘A thousand apologies for the controversy over Nutella’. She also tweeted the following day: ‘I agree to highlight progress (in palm oil production).’
This was a reassuring move for palm oil producers – but Royal needs to do some homework before her next big assignment, when France hosts the latest round of COP negotiations.
Many media around the world focused on the story of Royal’s comments, with full awareness that France is not new to levelling discriminatory attacks against Nutella and palm oil.
In 2012, a group of French politicians tried to introduce a 300% tax on palm oil, the so-called ‘Nutella Tax’, arguing that it was high in fat and that its cultivation was destroying tropical forests. The measure was defeated in a key vote in the French Parliament.
In 2014, Socialist Senator Yves Daudigny and centre-right Senator Catherine Deroche published a report in the French Senate calling for taxes to be raised on palm oil. This new attempt was disguised in the report as a ‘harmonisation’ of taxes on vegetable oils, and also found no political support in Parliament.
Palm oil faces protectionist sentiments in many markets, where local oilseed producers – and the politicians who protect them – are happy to throw lazy allegations about competitors.
However, the 24-hour media, and the watchful eyes of experts and commentators, now ensure that such allegations quickly fall apart under scrutiny. This is what happened to Royal’s statements. She is surely wiser for the experience.