“My friend says palm oil is bad”​ — a mother’s conundrum

Ambushed on the school run — “Mummy my friend (let’s call him Barlowe) said palm oil is bad”. It’s an occupational hazard, when you work in the world’s second largest palm oil company, explaining what you do for a living at school events or dinner parties. Sometimes after a long day at the office answering criticism from NGOs and anxious questions from customers, you just want to avoid it at the school social.

But with an earnest eight year-old wanting to defend his Mum in the school yard, what do you do?

Keep it simple. “Palm oil is a plant. Plants are not good or bad. It’s how we grow the plant that has the impact. And Mummy works to help farmers farm better. Can you remember that?” Smiles, nods. Job done, right?

24 hours later. “Mummy I am not sure I remembered it all but Barlowe says his Mum says palm oil is bad and so it just is.” You have got to admire the dedication of these boys defending their mothers in the playground.

The trouble is, both Mums are right. There are, sadly, still “bad farmers” out there — producers in our sector deploying poor practices, in many cases smallholder farmers who are following in the footsteps of their fathers and repeating their poor habits, and in others companies that have not yet started down the path of sustainability.

I say not yet because there are also “good farmers”, and I count my company among them, who are on the path of sustainability and are working to not only change their own practices but also those of others in the sector.

I understand Barlowe’s Mum’s position. As consumers we are bombarded with negative images of palm oil. The recent Iceland Food ad furore has demonstrated the power of emotive imagery yet again. Just yesterday, I saw Sky News quoting a figure, without a source, for orangutan deaths per day attributed to palm oil. Experts I consulted with say the figure quoted doesn’t chime with anything they have seen, but the impression it leaves is clear. The logical conclusion of all this messaging is — palm oil is bad and we should avoid or ban it.

By contrast it is harder to get positive messages out about palm oil. It remains too easy still to take photos of forests being cleared for new palm production. But the reality is that the numbers of hectares of forests lost due to palm oil are reducing year on year. World Resources Institute’s annual forest loss report showed Indonesia as a rare bright spot reporting a 60 percent drop in primary forest loss, an 88 percent drop in protected peatland forests. This should be cause for some hope — company policies in combination with government regulations are having an impact.

Palm oil supports the livelihoods of millions of people, people who desperately need and want the income it generates. Who see it as a pathway to better futures for their own children. And many of those producers, including the 40 percent who are smallholders, are moving to more sustainable production. That is the palm oil I am working to make the norm.

In the end, this mum sighed and said: “Ask your friend if he likes Nutella. If he does tell him it contains palm oil — certified sustainable, or “good” palm oil. And that he should keep supporting certified sustainable palm oil like that to help protect forests and support farmers who farm better.” More smiles and nods. I’ve played my trump card, I think.

“Can you write that down for me Mum?” asks the eight year-old.

Opinions here are my own alone.

Article by Anita Neville ,
SVP Group Corporate Communications, Golden Agri-Resources

We are a leading seed-to-shelf agribusiness, producing food and fuel for the present and future.