I’ve written before about the issues surrounding our near-limitless demand for palm oil. So you might expect I’d be applauding Iceland for promising to cut palm oil from their own-brand products from 2019 onwards – the kind of self-imposed deadline most campaigners can only dream of. And you might think I’d be up in arms about the ban that has stopped their beautiful and heartbreaking advert from reaching millions. And you’d be partly, but not completely, right.
In West Africa, the African oil palm has been cultivated for centuries. The plant was considered to be very useful, since it’s red oil-rich fruits can be used in a variety of products including soap, candle wax and engine lubricant. In the late 1840s, it played a key role in the British Industrial Revolution, and when it was discovered that the (west) African oil palm grew rather well in the hot, damp climates of the Far East, plantations began to spring up in Malaysia and Thailand. Palm oil is an extremely versatile vegetable oil; it is highly fractionable, meaning that it can be separated into many different products. On top of this, the oil palm is an extremely productive plant, producing 3.6 tonnes of palm oil per hectare; up to ten times more than other oil-producing crops such as rapeseed, sunflower or soyabean. Palm oil seemed to be an excellent choice of oil. Demand grew, and plantations spread into Malaysia and Indonesia in the 1930s. The oil palm is now grown on almost every continent on Earth, although the vast majority is still found in Southeast Asia.