Wise food manufacturers who strive for ‘clean label’ must start reformulating their products to eliminate palm oil. Its notoriety as a driver of rainforest destruction goes before it. Following Amnesty International’s allegations of human rights abuses on Indonesian plantations owned by Wilmar, which supplies Nestlé, Kellogg’s and Unilever, its status is sealed as the dirtiest ingredient on our shelves.
Expect to be shocked if you watch Amnesty’s recent documentary, Fruits of Our Labour. The testimony of Indonesian boys as young as eight is appalling: children working six days a week, getting up at 6am to gather palm fruit and move sacks weighing 25kg. As one of these children put it: “The hardest thing is to gather the loose fruit because they are heavy. My hands hurt and my body aches.”
The plight of women workers, who routinely mix and spray toxic pesticides without adequate protective clothing, is equally devastating. Nail rot, itching and coughing caused by working in this toxic environment are just part of the job, they say, and doubtless harbingers of the more serious illnesses they will suffer.
With NGOs regularly tracing back environmental destruction and labour rights violations to major players in the palm oil industry, and from there on to the suppliers and retailers they supply, some of whom are members of the Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil, this initiative looks like a green-washing farce. Any slight public credibility the RSPO ever had is flowing away like an upended bottle of its red oily product. For the big players in the palm oil industry, ‘engagement’ with NGOs like Greenpeace and Amnesty seems to allow turning a blind eye to deforestation and neo-colonial working conditions.
Consumer patience with the palm oil industry is wearing out. 2017 looks to me like a good year for thoughtful shoppers to boycott foods that contain its products. It’s easy to spot palm oil on food labels; ingredients listings on toiletries are more opaque. Few as yet recognise its chameleon names: sodium lauryl sulfate, stearic acid, glyceryl, sodium kernelate and more. But helpful lists are appearing. I predict that 2017 will be a very hard year for palm oil.
Joanna Blythman is a journalist and author of Swallow This