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There’s an Orang Utan in my bedroom but… What Iceland didn’t tell you.

November 18, 2018

I remember the supermarket chain Iceland opening up in my home town back in England.  I remember it selling mostly shite  in the form of frozen junk food – cheap frozen junk food. I almost never shopped there, it wasn’t really my demographic which sounds a bit snobby but it’s true.

To be fair on the Iceland supermarket chain, the time I was remembering was the late 1990’s and early 2000’s which pre-dates their financial issues and ousting of their senior management team. Since then they have gone through ownership changes, gone back to the old management and started to grow their business again to the point when it is now a great financial success story.

Iceland supermarket have been involved in what I’d call ‘free from’ marketing since day one so the ‘free from palm’ stance is not out of character.  According to their own website timeline they removed artificial colours and flavourings in 1986 along with monosodium glutamate from their own range (they do sell other branded products),  banned mechanically recovered meat in 1990 (the paste-like rubbish that’s in cheap chicken nuggets and burgers) and stood against GMO’s in 1999.  However,  throughout all of this they have still specialised in selling pre-packaged, frozen junk food albeit junk food that has a bit more thinking behind its ingredients than some other branded junk.

With regards to my use of the term ‘junk’ food what I’m referring to here is food that is processed, much of which may have a low nutritional status compared to fresh produce, un-necessary (treat-like foods maybe), fast (to cook), convenient (to eat) and overly packaged (take-away type and ready meals).  My use of the word ‘junk’ is a personal value judgement. I shouldn’t use personal values when writing as that’s a bias but as I’m writing this from my perspective as an opinion piece then I felt it warranted.

So on we go.

Iceland is to be the first supermarket to be completely palm free by the end of 2018, a date that is fast approaching.  To co-inside with this rapidly approaching deadline comes an advert voiced by the very lovely Emma Thompson and telling the story of a beautiful baby Orang Utan that has turned up in a little girls bedroom.  The Orang Utan gets angry when it sees the little girls bar of chocolate and shampoo (two products that Iceland isn’t famous for selling) and says that there are humans in their forest that have taken its mother and destroyed its home.  The little girl promises to fight to make the plight of this little Orang Utan known.  It’s all very heart-tugging, especially to those of us that are already primed to respond to this message.

The advert was banned from TV for being too political. This has had the usual impact of making it extra appealing and so it’s been shared widely on social media.

But is it presenting a fair argument?  (Does it even have to?)

Is it adding any value to the cause?

Is it actually any good?

As you may have predicted my opinion on all of the above is ‘no’.

Iceland failed to give any real perspective of the real issue here and instead turned it into a ‘compassionate person wanting to save Orang Utans vs Palm’ argument.  I DETEST that argument as it is absolute emotional manipulation but I lost the battle for a more rational approach to this issue a long time ago so instead I’m trying to stay sane in this crazy messed up world by using therapy, bush walking and a quieter, deeper form of activism just so you know…

Chocolate and Shampoo are products that often utilise Palm Oil in their formulations but taking Palm out of these things would be relatively easy as long as we don’t mind paying a bit more compared to items such as biodiesel which is not mentioned in the advert (of course it isn’t, Iceland is a food supplier and they don’t sell biodiesel).   But even if chocolate and shampoo WERE the big issues here when we take palm out, what do we put in instead?

Iceland haven’t made much of what they are replacing Palm with.  I looked into this a little bit and found that they are looking to use Sunflower Oil and Butter as their oil replacements – a move that will save 500 tonnes of palm oil per year. 62 million tonnes were produced in 2015 so while 500 tonnes is something it’s only a tiny little dent of a something.

At this point my chemistry brain starts ticking.

Palm oil isn’t just added as palm oil, it’s a feedstock chemical that goes into ingredients such as emulsifiers, thickeners, preservatives, texture modifiers etc – some of the E number stuff and other interesting ingredients we often find on the labels of pre-packaged food, the types of things you wouldn’t put into home-made fair.

I wonder now if Iceland are talking about palm in its entirety or just as the oil? There is a difference…

In terms of sunflower and butter being alternatives I’m actually somewhat concerned by this.  Oil World figures show that Sunflower Oil produces around 0.5 tonnes per hectare of oil compared to 3.7 tonnes per hectare of Palm.   Now there are lots of things to consider behind these figures but the first big-hitter being the yield per field of crop can’t go unmentioned.   Iceland will need over 7 times more fields to grow its palm alternative than it currently does and that doesn’t come without environmental impact.  Sunflower oil is a crop that can be grown in a wider range of countries than Palm which needs a more tropical climate.   We could argue that it is better to preserve the forests of Indonesia and Malaysia at any cost (to anywhere else) but if we took that view a) those countries would rightly get the shits as they are being told not to ‘develop’ while elsewhere in the world hedges are being ripped out and bush land and residual forest destroyed to make room for more and more non-food use cropping – war is a potential consequence of our ignorance and b) we would feel the effects of this in other areas and would soon have to face another problem of food prices going through the roof as we squeeze more non-food oil crop into our farming mix.   Do you remember what happened when the US wanted to put bioethanol in their fuel?   Once again we are heading for war. 

As for butter being an alternative oh please…

I am currently still a meat eater and I am very aware of the impact that meat has on the environment and how hypocritical I am to be trying to work out how best to ‘save’ the planet while still eating meat.  I am working on that.  However, how any company can claim to be taking the moral high ground on an issue such as Palm while replacing it with butter is beyond me.  Do these people not have vegan customers?  I guess not, probably not their core demographic.

For the record butter coming from milk coming from cows is an environmental disaster. Sure the Orang Utans might be OK with butter as Indonesia and Malaysia aren’t chopping their forests down for cow grazing country but fly over to the other side of the world and voila- they are – bye bye Amazon (not the shop, the rainforest).

I’ve got plenty of articles on this on the blog – pop ‘palm oil’ into the search box if you want to read more that I’ve written, if you are interested. This is simply too complex of an issue to distil down into one article here.

So what should we do?

I know this is harsh but if Iceland really wanted to save the world they would probably close their doors and put their money behind good old-fashioned home cooking but that’s not entirely practical, their brand and product offering does serve a market that deserves serving well.

To my mind the issue behind palm is the same as the issue behind all of our environmental woes. There are too many people taking too many resources and not valuing them enough. We are still a throw-away, indulgent society that sees convenience and choice as our birthright.  Over the last 40 years we have started to feel increasingly bad about that and rightly so as over 60% of all animal diversity has been lost during my lifetime.  We simply can’t go on like this.  But instead of staring the real problem in the face we attempt to placate ourselves by working hard to save cuddly cute animals,  focus on what I call ‘busy work’ instead of putting in the hard yards.  We do this without realising that our efforts and sacrifice amount to next to nothing as far as the natural word is concerned and then we get angry and frustrated.

I think that Ice Cube had it in the bag when he said ‘they put the sheep to sleep and dominate the weak’.  He was talking about a particular situation in California but in my experience this  willingness to be anaesthetised happens everywhere in lots of situations.

My tip?  Stay awake and power through the pain. You can do it and after all, staying awake is what being alive is all about, anything else is just existing and maintaining the status quo.

PS: Sorry about the swears but they’ll be the least of your worries if this situation continues.

PPS: I forgot to mention this earlier but did you know that pre-packaged food, meat and dairy are huge water users. If we haven’t already killed each other over this farming palm oil and other crops issue we’ll all die of thirst.  Nice!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Geraldine G permalink
    November 19, 2018 11:39 pm

    Thanks for posting this – I had a gut feeling not to share this when it appeared on my social media feed but I didn’t have the time to look into it further so thank you for doing the hard work.

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