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Don’t let the eco-maniacs cancel palm oil


THE Mirror recently ran a story claiming that palm oil can contribute to the spread of cancer. That would be very worrying, because palm oil is extremely versatile and is used in everything from shampoo to chocolate. But is it true?

That article in the Mirror is regurgitated from an earlier story in the Guardian, which in turn is lifted from an article in the science journal Nature. All three articles, which are remarkably similar, try to claim that palmitic acid, which is found in palm oil, can exacerbate cancer, but when you dig beyond the headlines, you soon realise that the reports are little more than scare stories.

The truth is that palmitic acid is the most common saturated fatty acid in nature. It is present in plants and animals, and makes up 20-30 per cent of total fatty acid in the human body. An 11-stone man contains almost 8lb of the stuff.

The link to cancer is tenuous at best. The experiment cited was on mice and there is no information about what happens in people. The logic is so stretched you could apply it to almost any ingredient in food that you wanted to demonise. Broccoli, for instance, contains a chemical called acetaldehyde, which is carcinogenic, as do countless other common, harmless foods. Headlines claiming something commonplace has ‘links to cancer’ are almost always political and activist-driven, and this is certainly the case with palm oil.

The rhetoric in the cancer scare articles is part of a much wider campaign against palm oil. Companies and politicians around the world are going out of their way to disassociate from it. Leading the pack is the European Union, which is pushing for palm oil imports to Europe to be banned.

Why does the eco-lobby care so much about restricting our access to this innocuous-seeming vegetable oil?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is virtue-signalling. Many claim to be very worried that palm oil is causing deforestation on a mass scale. Greenpeace even produced an advert claiming that by consuming palm oil, we are destroying orangutan habitats. (The ad was banned for being too political.) But much like the palmitic acid story, the truth about palm oil and deforestation is quite different from what the environmentalists would have you believe.

Palm oil caters to more than a third of global vegetable oil demand but causes just 4 per cent of the deforestation, and that proportion is falling by the week as more sustainable methods are developed. Alternatives such as sunflower and rapeseed use much more land to produce the same amount of oil, making them both worse for the environment (because you have to chop down many more trees to produce them) and considerably more expensive.

Why, then, does the green lobby target palm oil rather than other products? Quite simply, palm oil is widely used (for good reason) so the simplistic Left blames it for all the world’s ills, from cancer to deforestation.

Ninety per cent of the palm oil imported to Europe is certified as sustainable already. Even the World Wide Fund for Nature says that if we care about protecting nature, the best thing we can do is allow the innovation in sustainable palm oil, not attack or ban it.

WWF says: ‘Palm oil is an incredibly efficient crop, producing more oil per land area than any other equivalent vegetable oil crop. Globally, palm oil supplies 40 per cent of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just under 6 per cent of the land used to produce all vegetable oils . . . Furthermore, there are millions of smallholder farmers who depend on producing palm oil for their livelihoods. Boycotting palm oil is not the answer.’

Short-sighted attacks on essential products such as palm oil would be unwise and harmful at any time, but when inflation is rocketing and the price of food and toiletries is already a huge worry for many families, making products more expensive by restricting access to ingredients is positively ludicrous.

Don’t let eco-maniacs cancel palm oil. The consequences for the rest of us would be dire because it would only cause food prices to climb even further and leave more supermarket shelves empty, without doing anything to preserve the natural world. The anti-palm oil campaign is just another round of Project Fear from the green lobby without a basis in fact.

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Jason Reed
Jason Reed
Jason Reed is a writer and broadcaster on politics and policy.

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