Over the past year, SPICe has received enquiries from Members on behalf of constituents concerned over the environmental impact of palm oil, including “what can be done to tackle the issue in Scotland?”, and “does the Scottish Parliament has the power to ban or restrict its use?”.
This blog addresses these questions, and provides an overview of environmental issues associated with palm oil production.
What is palm oil and why is it a problem?
The growing demand for palm oil has led to large-scale deforestation to make way for new plantations. A 2013 European Commission study found that 5.5 million hectares of forest were lost to palm oil plantations between 1990 and 2008. Deforestation has led to species and biodiversity loss, increased release of carbon dioxide emissions and loss of resources for local indigenous populations.
Palm oil is commonly used in a wide range of food and household products in the UK. It is a popular ingredient among manufacturers because of its superior properties compared to alternative vegetable oils.
It is the world’s biggest oil crop, with over 80 million metric tonnes produced annually. The graph below shows the growth in palm oil production from 1961 to 2017/18.
Most production of the oil is in South East Asia, and production has risen rapidly in recent decades. A 2016 study found that the global palm oil planting area increased from six million hectares in 1990 to 17 million hectares in 2012. Eighty four per cent of the world’s palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Could a ban work?
There are many reasons why banning palm oil could be challenging to implement. One of the reasons palm oil is so widely used is because its production uses land more efficiently in comparison to other oils, with the result that it is cheaper than potential substitutes. Therefore, there is often no straightforward solution for many manufacturers in replacing palm oil with more sustainable alternatives.
Another challenge is that many food manufacturers use certain parts of palm oil, known as fractions as well as blends with other types of vegetable oil. Some of these complex fractions or blends are not currently available as Certified Sustainable Palm Oil.
A Scottish ban would also give rise to its own practical issues. For example, how would a ban work where products are manufactured in England and Wales? Would there need to be different production runs for Scotland and the rest of the UK? How would manufacturers and the UK Government react?
Does the Scottish Parliament have the power to ban palm oil?
This is where it gets even trickier. SPICe cannot take a view on this question because there are many legal issues that need to be considered. Although environmental protection is generally devolved to the Scottish Parliament, it is also an EU competence, particularly when dealing with international environmental issues. Furthermore, the problem of palm oil is intrinsically linked to trade and therefore to EU and international law on the free movement of goods.
The post-Brexit legal landscape is also complicated by uncertainty over the future relationship between the UK and the EU after Brexit. A close relationship with the EU, which includes access to the single market and customs union, would require regulatory alignment with the EU on trade and environmental regulations.
Even without a close relationship with the EU, international trade under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, or under free-trade agreements would also impose legal requirements for the free movement of goods. This would most likely lead to a legal challenge on any proposal (for example Malaysia is proposing a challenge to the European Parliament’s decision to ban palm oil in bio fuels).
Is a ban necessary?
The practical complexity of an outright ban raises the question about whether this is a proportionate approach from a policy perspective. There are other approaches that may be feasible.
Palm oil levy (tax)
A palm oil levy could be a way to encourage manufacturers to seek alternative or sustainably sourced palm oil. An example of this is the UK-wide soft drinks levy introduced in April 2018. This was introduced to encourage the soft drinks industry to reduce the content of sugar contained in their products.
Another alternative to a ban would be to introduce clearer product labelling schemes. EU legislation introduced in 2014 required products containing palm oil to be listed more specifically in ingredient labels. Previously generic terms such as ‘vegetable oils’ could be used. However, the legislation does not require manufacturers to list if palm oil is sustainably sourced.
Mandatory food labelling standards are currently regulated by the EU and any change to this information would require a change to EU legislation. However, it is possible for manufacturers to provide additional voluntary labelling information on food products.
Whether or not the Scottish Parliament would have the power to introduce legislation for stricter labelling requirements after Brexit will again depend on the future trading relationship between the UK and the EU and on future trade agreements between the UK and other countries.
What is the government doing about it?
Actions by the UK and Scottish Governments demonstrate some willingness to address this problem. in 2013, the Scottish Government took the decision to remove all products containing palm oil from its ‘home run’ catering and kitchen facilities.
The UK Government has recently stated that it has no plans to bring forward legislation to ban non-sustainable palm oil. However, the UK “is determined to make good on commitments to support companies to implement zero-deforestation supply chains, including in respect of palm oil.”
What can consumers do?
In the absence of government intervention, consumers can play an important role in the choices they make. Some products that use sustainably sourced palm oil can be identified by voluntary labelling of certification schemes such as the Rainforest Alliance and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPCO) certification.
The WWF also runs an online Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard which rates companies based on their use of sustainable palm oil.
Damon Davies, Angus Evans and Abigail Bremner, SPICe Research.