The Palm Oil Conundrum: The need for more systemic solutions

The Palm Oil debate illustrates that complex issues can be highjacked by over simplified messages, tugging at consumer heartstrings, which in the end could do more harm than good. It’s time for those organisations advocating certification-based approaches, to move from a siloed market-based approach to commodity sustainability, to one which recognises the need for more systemic and transformational solutions.

Not many people will have missed the recent storm of controversy surrounding UK Frozen Foods supermarket Iceland, recent advert highlighting the issue of Palm Oil. As a consumer, who would not be moved as a young orangutan called ‘Rang Tang’ telling a little girl about its plight and the loss of its rainforest home.

Approximately 50% of all food products brought from supermarkets contain a form of palm / palm kernel oil. It is also an ingredient found in many cosmetics, soaps and detergents. Over the last 50 years the massive rise in palm oil production has been a key driver of forest loss in many parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and parts of West Africa, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, reductions in water quality and biodiversity loss. There have also been significant human rights issues as a result.

Boycotting palm oil may seem like a simple solution and is a natural reaction of consumers wanting to save the Orangutan. There is no doubt, that boycotting can be a powerful tool and force for change. However, when it comes to Palm Oil, boycotting is likely to lead to a whole bunch of more significant unintended consequences. A consumer switch to other vegetable oils (sunflower, rapeseed, soya, coconut etc.), without a proper assessment of the social and environmental consequences that would result (including possible displacement of biodiversity loss), could potentially be even more catastrophic.

Compared to other sources of vegetable oil (e.g. rapeseed and soybean oil) palm oil production is an extremely efficient way of producing vegetable oils, yielding up to five times more oil per unit of land than others and requiring far less pesticide and fertiliser.  We can’t also ignore the fact that some 3 million smallholder households in the developing world rely on palm oil for their livelihoods.

The Roundtable for Responsible Palm Oil (RSPO), the main certification body, made up of producers, processors manufacturers, retailers, and NGOs, is far from perfect. It has in recent years, rightly been heavily criticised for failing to support smallholder palm oil producers, continued human rights abuses and ignoring the need to take a high carbon stocks approach. At its annual meeting held in Sabah, Malaysia (November 2018), it resolved to address these issues by adopting a strengthened certification standard.

The solutions to the palm oil conundrum are not easy, but a boycott is not the solution in this instance. Instead businesses, governments and civil society organisations should be focussing on two  key priorities:

  • Continued Improvement of RSPO – I believe that the RSPO is the best vehicle currently available to improve the sustainability of the palm oil industry. Businesses and consumers alike should continue to support it and ensure it implements the changes It has promised. With the scheme in the spotlight and pressure to stop deforestation greater than ever, the RSPO is at a critical crossroads. It probably has five years to demonstrate that it can make a difference to prevent deforestation and improve the lives of palm oil producers.
  • The need for certification bodies and businesses to think beyond a commodity ‘market-based approach’ to a ‘systems approach’ – For too long many businesses and certification bodies (not just relating to Palm Oil but Soya, Beef, seafood etc) have placed all their eggs in the certification basket. They have focused on theory of change based on ‘tipping the market’ – the theory going, that when you reach a certain volume of sustainably produced commodities, the rest of the market will follow, catalysing a rapid transition of sustainability across the rest of the commodity market. Bingo, problems solved! The Achilles Heel of this approach is that is fails to recognise that to produce key global commodities within planetary limits, you need to address rising demand (resulting from changing consumption patterns and global population growth), So taking Palm oil as the example, the RSPO needs to start thinking more systemically, thinking about how to address rising demand as well as production sustainability. They should be posing and responding to the following key questions; What are the key environmental, health, social and economic impacts of a reduction in palm oil production and an increase in production of other oils? What is the right balance of different vegetable oils that will meet the needs of a growing global population? How can we work across the vegetable oil sector to tackle these issues? To do this, the RSPO needs to shift from a narrow frame of thinking – the answers to the palm oil conundrum may lay beyond the palm oil industry.

Six Plant Based Innovation Trends for 2019

What do Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Li Ka-shing and Google Founder Segey Brin have in common? Apart, from being some of the world richest men, they have all invested heavily in plant based and ‘clean meat’ start ups over the last 12 months. Why are they doing this? They all recognise we are in the midst of a plant-based food revolution, driven by consumer concerns around health, sustainability and animal welfare and which will have a significant impact on our plates, palate & planet in the years to come. The days when meat is the star of our plates are coming to an end. Plant-based diets have skyrocketed in popularity over the last couple of years with the numbers of vegans vegetarians and flexitarians (those wanting to increase their intake of plant-based meals without completely eliminating meat) increasing rapidly since 2016, in UK and Europe.

Demand for Plant Based foods will continue to rocket in 2019

All signs point to continued rapid growth in plant-based product sales in 2019, driven by the rise in interest in flexitarian diets as consumers continue to look for product offerings that reduce the impact of what they eat on their health or who are concerned about animal welfare or sustainability issues. This provides a real opportunity for the food sector, across manufacturing, retail and food service, to grow and innovate. According to Nestlé, the plant-based food market is expected to reach $5.2 billion worldwide by 2020. Whilst there are potentially significant financial rewards there are also huge opportunities to tackle some of the most prescient global health and sustainability challenges – biodiversity loss, climate change, obesity and hunger, all of which are likely to rise up political agendas in the coming decade. The UN Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016 – 2025) and the global commitments on the Sustainable Development Goals and Climate Paris Agreement offer an unprecedented opportunity for universal and integrated change and fostering greater innovation to encourage more plant-based eating patterns, will be crucial to the success of these. Already we have seen the Chinese government committing to reducing their meat consumption by 50% in 2050 and a series of measures by governments in parts of Europe to reduce meat and increase the proportions of nuts, pulses, fruit and vegetables within national dietary and procurement guidelines.

6 Trends in Plant Based Innovation for 2019

Driven by changing expectations of citizens, customers, governments and increasing interest by the investor community, I have highlighted six trends which I predict will continue to drive plant-based innovation in the global marketplace throughout 2019:

1) Buying into the plant product market – Some of the world’s largest players of traditional meat-based proteins now recognise that the plant protein market could disrupt their traditional protein markets. Maple Leaf Foods, Canada’s leading retailer of packaged meat, is bringing nine new plant-based proteins to the country as a result of recently acquiring the meat-free brand Lightlife Foods. This is in addition to the vegan brand Field Roast Grain Meat Co which it brought for $120 million dollars earlier in the year. The company president, Dan Curtin, recently said that their target market is now ‘flexitarians and ‘reducetarians’ and that they aim to be the most sustainable protein company in the world and become a global leader in plant-based products. Tyson Foods, the largest U.S. meat processor, more known for chicken than chickpeas, has recently invested vast sums in two alternative protein start-ups – Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats. Later this year they plan to launch ‘Green Street’ a new brand that will offer plant-based meal bowls featuring ingredients such as quinoa, lentils, and chickpeas!

Despite some critics who argue that the trend of buying plant-based brands devalues the ethics of these brands, these are smart moves for Maple Leaf and Tyson. By diversifying into plant-based proteins they’re hedging their bets for the future and taking a leadership position which they anticipate will bring long term financial returns on their investments.

2) Alternative Plant Proteins– Algae soup or hemp flour anyone? Whilst this may seem far fetched we could see a plethora of new plant-based products made from a wide variety of unusual ingredients – Spirulina (and various other algae), seaweed, hemp, spelt, heff and water lentils, are all likely to take a more dominant position on our supermarket shelves in the years to come.  Impact investors and accelerators, particularly those based in the US and Israel, are investing millions of dollars in dozens of plant-based start-ups looking at scaling up production of these ingredients.

The water lentil (also known as Duckwead) are now being grown on massive aquafarms by companies such as Parabel . Tasting slightly sweater than normal lentils they are highly nutritious and packed with omega 3 fatty acids fibres and other mico nutrients. They can double their biomass every 24 hours and can be harvested daily so have the potential to provide both a healthy and sustainable form of protein.

3) Orphan CropsThere are over 20,000 species of edible plants in the world yet fewer than 20 species now provide 90% of our food, with these being dominated by rice, maize, wheat and soybean. With 800 million people still hungry and a further 2 billion people lacking key micronutrients, increasing attention will be given to those forgotten or orphan crops –  crops like tef, finger millet, yam, roots and tubers that tend to be regionally important, often highly nutritional and adaptable crops that are not traded around the world and receive no attention by research networks.

One such example is Amaranth – A plant from Central America where it was an important food for the Aztec, Mayan and Incan civilisations. It’s starting to attract significant attention by researchers and food brands mainly due to the high nutritional value of the seeds, resistance to drought and ability to produce grains in a relatively short time. For more on Orphan Crops see my blog on Forgotten Crops here.

4) Meatless meat dishes – Over the past few years faux burger brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger, which replicate the way meats cook and taste, have attracted millions in investor dollars and have penetrated the mainstream market. Impossible Foods, with investment of $400 million has created the Impossible Burger, a burger created purely from plants with a unique ingredient called heme. Heme is what makes meat smell, sizzle, bleed, and taste just like meat.  Unlike the Beyond Burger, which was launched on Tesco’s supermarket shelves in August, the Impossible burger contains a genetically altered ingredient from soy, which is a barrier to the adoption of the burger within UK/European markets.

Over the last couple of years there have been dozens of start-ups entering the market producing plant-based foods that mimic meat favourites. Expect to see chicken free chicken chunks, meatless meatballs and fishless fish fingers on supermarket shelves over the coming years.

5) Ready Meals and composite food products – To date there have been surprisingly very few signs of the market looking to reduce meat in ready meals or other composite food stuffs. In 2017 we Brits spent £4.7 billion on this food category and yet according to recent research by the Eating Better Coalition, meat still dominates the ready meal aisles, with only 3% being plant based. As the spotlight continues to be placed on the ready meal market, I expect to see significant changes in this sector in the years to come. Not only will we see more vegan and vegetarian options, but we are likely to see a proportion of meat being replaced by plants in certain products like Pizza’s, lasagnes and pies.

Waitrose has already recently announced it has teamed up with the Vegetarian Butcher to supply the meat alternatives for its new plant-based range of ready meals. With a unique approach to branding the vegetarian butcher aims to appeal to health conscious meat enthusiasts and also has a number of restaurants on continental Europe.

6) Branding and messaging – Companies have an important role and a responsibility, from a planetary and human health perspective, to nudge consumers towards certain behaviours. More evidence is now emerging on how the language of plant-based foods can encourage more plant based eating and sustainable diets. A report recently published by the World Resource Institute suggested many plant-based dishes have names that are not appealing to people who normally eat meat. Marketing organisations are now suggesting that labelling products as vegan or vegetarian is the worst thing you can do if we want to tap into the flexitarian market – using terms like ‘plant based’ may be a much smarter marketing strategy. Expect much more innovative branding in the years to come………

(This blog is adapted from a longer article written for New Food Magazine,  in October 2018, which can be found here )