Unilever grilled over sustainable palm oil

By Rod Addy

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Palm oil Agriculture Unilever

Unilever faced a grilling over why the food industry was not moving faster to sell products made from sustainable sources of palm oil, at a recent...

Unilever faced a grilling over why the food industry was not moving faster to sell products made from sustainable sources of palm oil, at a recent parliamentary meeting.

Bill Wiggin MP, shadow minister for agriculture and fisheries, put Gavin Neath, Unilever senior vice president of global communications, in the dock over the issue.

The two men traded words at the meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Food and Drink Manufacturing, supported by the Food and Drink Federation​. Also present were Jonathan Horrell, corporate affairs director at Kraft Foods, and Richard Perkins, senior policy adviser, agricultural supply chains for the World Wildlife Fund.

In the wake of the first consignments of sustainable palm oil becoming available on the world market, Neath said: “Sourcing in the early days will carry a premium and we’re paying some of that, but we can’t pay everything and remain competitive.”

In response, Wiggin said: “Isn’t it true that you have failed to engage with consumers sufficiently to persuade them to support a premium?”

Neath replied that consumers weren’t able to pay a premium yet on products made using sustainable palm oil because the global roundtable on palm oil hadn’t agreed on a product label highlighting it.

However, Wiggin accused Neath of making spurious excuses, saying it was up to companies like Unilever, which buys 4% of the world’s palm oil, to take a lead on the issue: “It’s not good enough to say this is difficult. You have got to close the gap to enable the consumer to choose. Industry wants to work a little speedier than it is at the moment.

“The timescale is what we should be worrying about. According to climate change models, from 2050 we will face major climate change unless we do something now. This meeting is a challenge to food producers to say: come on, move a little faster. We’re spurring you on.”

Nevertheless, he praised Unilever, which is committed to sustainable sourcing for all its palm oil by 2015, and other processors for making sustainable palm oil an issue.

But he acknowledged that retailers had a role to play in the process as well. “It would be a good thing if the major global retailers made sustainable palm oil a ticket for entry into their stores. There’s a fighting chance that Wal-Mart might do that.”

At present, palm oil cultivation in South America is linked to deforestation, which is damaging the climate.