Saying no to palm oil

19 Apr 2013, 3:26 p.m.
I've decided that eating butter is better for the Earth than margarine with palm oil, but it's a complicated question.

On an afternoon between Christmas and New Year, I found myself standing in the chilled section of a health food store, looking at the packets of margarine like Mr Burns deciding between ketchup and catsup. One had 50% sunflower oil and 10% palm oil. One had 40% palm oil as well as rapeseed and olive oil. One had 'vegetable oil'. They were all labelled organic, which is not usually a deciding factor in my shopping, but did it make a difference here? I vaguely knew that palm oil was bad for the environment (very bad!), but perhaps organic standards—quite coincidentally—made things better.

In the end I chose the brand that cost slightly less, Provamel. I've enjoyed their soya milks and yoghurts in the past, and even though the margarine contained palm oil, I knew that Provamel had good sustainability and ethical policies for soya. They would take the same care with their palm oil, right?

Well, perhaps they do, but there is nothing written about it on their website. Obviously, my next step was to ask MetaFilter to help me understand the situation; I got very helpful replies and decided it was time to stop buying palm oil altogether. It's a difficult task: that stuff and its derivatives are in everything, or so it feels, from biscuits to shaving gel. I've started making a real effort to be more conscious of it when I shop.

The result of this, an annoying one for a mostly-vegan like me, is that I currently feel more comfortable buying butter than margarine. Switzerland was already a hard place to be a vegan; the Swiss prize their dairy cows as an important symbol of their nationality and joyfully put butter and milk into as many baked goods as possible. Of course, dairy farming causes pretty high emissions of greenhouse gases and is also a lot crueller than many people realise. Switzerland does have very strong animal welfare laws compared to the EU, though. Since I haven't yet found any non-palm-oil-containing margarine, and as something of the sort is sometimes necessary, I'm happier on balance to get butter.

One other option I could try is coconut oil. I saw some yesterday in a health-food shop, where there were plenty of recipe booklets and leaflets on how healthy it is but nothing on its environmental impact. This seems to be a lot lower than the effect of palm oil cultivation, though I've not found much to go on. Mangrove swamps are sometimes deforested to plant coconut as a cash crop. There may be labour issues with coconut harvesting, as of course there are with palm oil—along with the displacing indigenous people issues and killing orang utan issues. Actually, the biggest problem for me is that David doesn't like the taste of coconut. If I try some, I shall report back on how I find it.