Campaigns against palm oil have evolved over the years. In the 1980s and 1990s, the US soybean lobby campaigned against it on purported health grounds. Since 2000, the campaign has shifted to alleged 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 Britain’s Prince Harry has been drawn into the debate, remarking that products containing palm oil should carry a label “like cigarettes”, as a form of health warning. His comments, reported in the UK’s Sunday Express newspaper (Dec 4, 2016), were made during a visit to the Iwokrama International Centre in the Guyana rainforest.

His misinformed proposal is reminiscent of radical tactics that attempt to shut down or restrict products to which campaigners raise objections for various reasons. Palm oil has been in their sights, but they have a new playbook.

The first part of the campaign is well underway. That is the push to make palm oil consumption more visible – an easy-to-see target in food products, as has happened in many countries. There has been considerable pressure to have palm oil specifically labelled in Europe. Lobbying by NGOs is now focused on extending this to the US, Australia and New Zealand.

Once palm oil is identified by consumers through labelling, the second and more insidious part of the campaign takes off. This pushes for products to be ‘free of palm oil’. The outcome can already be seen in the proliferation of the ‘No palm oil’ label affixed to products by food manufacturers across Europe.

Use of the label, though, is clearly illegal. There are rules governing the use of negative claims in food labelling in the EU and Australia. There needs to be justifiable cause as to why something is labelled ‘free’ of a particular ingredient. In most cases this is for health reasons, as in the case of dairy or soybean products; these are known sources of allergens. The label should not be applied to palm oil, as it is not an allergen.

The real goal is to poison the minds of consumers. When enough products indicate and advertise that they do not contain a specific product, consumers are led to believe that these are ‘socially unacceptable’ to consume.

Tenuous claims

The arguments used by anti-palm oil campaigners remain weak. First, the case on health grounds has been tested over a 30-year period. New evidence has closed it comprehensively from a scientific perspective. The NGOs, however, do not care for science.

Second, there is the environmental case, with the justification for avoiding palm oil taking on many guises. This has gone through the wildlife conservation case; the climate change case; the tropical peatlands case; and more recently, the forest fires and haze case.

In all these cases, the claims have been rebutted with evidence. But what they lack in evidence, the campaigners will make up with persistence. They know that if a message is repeated often 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. The most recent attacks have been based on allegations of child labour, human rights abuses and land rights infringements.

This last part of the campaign is particularly dangerous, and has mainly been projected to a US audience. It must be urgently dealt with if palm oil is to avoid this narrative becoming as ingrained in the minds of end-users, as is the environmental narrative in Europe.

In most cases, no distinction is made in relation to the source of palm oil – whether by company or country, and whether sustainably produced or not. The target is the commodity itself.

And as is often the case in western markets, people do not 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.

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 have not changed. 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-trodden path to social banishment as products like tobacco. The palm oil industry must act fast to avoid this fate.

MPOC

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