Snake Oil From The Prince of Palm

May 3, 2009

Palm oil plantations cut out of rainforest in Indonesia

Palm oil plantations cut out of rainforest in Indonesia

I don’t know how many people harbour any illusions about Prince Charles’ “eco-credentials” (horrible word, I know) but I think it’s best you know that his Duchy Originals brand-line is not very different to any other mass food producing corporation.

Some of its products are riddled with Palm Oil – as the Independent reports – which is derived mainly from plantations carved out of rainforest lands. That’s all very ironic as the Green Prince does go on a bit about protecting the rainforest.

What makes it worse though, is the fact that while the Prince is in charge of a conventional, rapacious, business (and uses copious amounts of greenwash to sell his overpriced products), his firm also employs some pretty brazen PR goons to neutralize press attention.

As “a spokesman for the company” says, “Currently less than five of our products – in a range of over 200 – contain palm oil. Duchy Originals only uses palm oil in recipes where there is no alternative, and then only in minimal quantities.”

The Indy had listed those products as “toffee biscuits, beetroot soup, spinach and nutmeg soup, fresh chicken gravy and steak and ale pie.”

Quite how palm oil – which is produced only in tropical climates and is shipped thousands of miles to appear in organic soups – is vital to pretty ancient British recipes like steak and ale pie or beetroot soup, is a complete mystery. Or the swine could simply be lying, which of course they are.

In encouraging the market for palm oil in foods, the Prince is also helping the market for palm oil in biofuels. You can hardly stand up against the one without ending your support for the other. So I do hope that the Green Prince will be instructing Duchy to strip all of the palm oil out of their beetroot soups as soon as possible.

And it would be very useful if he could make a statement demanding reform of the hopeless Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The RSPO, which was supposedly set up to certify palm oil producers as, well, sustainable, has utterly failed.

As Greenpeace has found, the RSPO – which includes massive corporations like Nestle, ADM and Tesco – is “taking no steps to avoid the worst practices associated with the industry, such as large-scale forest clearance and taking land from local people without their consent” while “RSPO members are still relying on palm oil suppliers who destroy rainforests and convert peatlands for their plantations.”

The Prince is a major backer of certification (rather than global regulation) of corporations. Last year, he stood up for Unilever – one of the world’s largest buyers of palm oil – after protests against rising biofuel production and continuing use of palm oil in the firm’s many food products.

Yet as the Independent’s Martin Hickman reports today, “right now no multinational can vouch that its supply is sustainable.” According to Hickman, Unilever consumes 1.6 million tonnes of palm oil per year, which marks some 4 percent of global supply. Coincidentally, only some 4 percent of global supply is certified as “sustainable” and the cost of certified oil is 35 percent higher than conventional oil, making it extremely unlikely that it will catch on.

Unilever has committed to exclusively buying RSPO certified oil – which is what the Prince was applauding last year – but only by 2015. How much rainforest will have disappeared by then to feed western demand for tasteless margarine or biofuels?

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