Dutch food brand The Flower Farm sells margarine made from shea – a crop that grows across West Africa, including in Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Mali.
The Flower Farm’s offering is vegan, contains no preservatives, and according to the Dutch company, is ‘much tastier’ than conventional margarine. The Flower Farm’s product is also proudly palm oil-free.
‘Eat plants, not palm please’, reads the product packaging, which is complemented by the start-up’s online material – via The Flower Farm’s website and social media channels – drawing consumers’ attention to the negative effects of deforestation across palm oil producing countries.
More specifically, the shea margarine brand has claimed that the entire palm oil industry, without distinguishing between sustainable and conventional producers, is responsible for deforestation. The Flower Farm also stated that families swapping out conventional margarine for Flower Farm’s product could each save 30m² of rainforest every year.
Having been alerted to these claims by the European Palm Oil Alliance (EPOA), on 13 November 2019 the Dutch Advertising Code Committee (RCC) recommended the start-up adjust its packaging, television commercial, video, social media messages, and website.
The Flower Farm’s ‘bold’ deforestation claim
According to The Flower Farm co-founder Marcel van Wing, the RCC took issue with statements associating deforestation with the palm oil industry ‘as a whole’. “That statement was pretty bold, but actually it is true,” van Wing told FoodNavigator.
“The RCC said that it is true that palm oil is partly responsible for deforestation in Southeast Asia, but that there are some initiatives trying to [encourage] a more responsible way of producing palm oil – where they try to avoid deforestation.”
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an organisation that aims to make ‘sustainable palm oil the norm’, is one such initiative.
As a result, the RCC has advised – and not ‘instructed’, as it is not a legal institution, van Wing stressed – that The Flower Farm edit its communications.
“Therefore, we had to give more nuance…saying that yes, a lot of palm oil is responsible for deforestation, but that there are also some suppliers that do their best to avoid deforestation,” he explained.
The Flower Farm’s website now reads: “One of the causes of deforestation is the production of unsustainably grown palm oil.”
Can swapping out conventional margarine for palm-oil free alternative save 30m² of forest?
The Flower Farm also claimed that by moving to palm oil-free margarine, a family of four could save almost 11kg of palm oil each year. This calculation is based on ‘official figures’ and was not disputed by the RCC.
However, the advertising watchdog has taken issue with The Flower Farm’s next steps in the equation. Since 30m² of land is required to produce about 11kg of palm oil, The Flower Farm estimated that by eliminating palm oil from margarine, a family of four could save 30m² of forest.
“This last bit, [linking] palm oil plantation to rainforest, cannot be proven legally,” van Wing told this publication. “We cannot prove that all new plantations are being put on rainforest”, he said, as new palm oil plantations can be converted from other crops, such as rubber.
From a legal standpoint, van Wing agrees with the RCC’s advice and has since adjusted the claim.
However, “emotionally, I disagree”, he said. “Because if you look at the bigger picture, and you follow the news, you hear and see that there is a lot of rainforest being replaced by oil palm plantations, even today.”
Start-up appeals ruling
The Flower Farm has appealed against the RCC’s ruling. The case will be dealt with by the Board of Appeal on December 3.
The main reason for the appeal, according to van Wing, relates to the RCC’s advice that sustainable palm oil companies be incorporated into its communications.
“I would like some clarification on that,” said the co-founder. “It is not our task, here at The Flower Farm, to promote the fact that the oil palm industry is trying to do their best to produce palm oil that is not connected to deforestation.
“I think it is the task of the palm oil industry to make clear to the public they are trying to do their best.”
So how can the palm oil sector increase consumer awareness? Van Wing suggested clear distinctions between sustainable and irresponsibly sourced palm oil be made more visible for consumers, to give ‘people a well-informed choice’. That way, “they can choose a product that is not connected to deforestation”.
While The Flower Farm hopes the palm oil industry becomes more transparent in their offering, the start-up does not see this as its responsibility. “So if the RCC asks us to do this for [the palm oil industry], I think it’s unfair.”
What is the impact of palm oil alternatives?
FoodNavigator asked the RSPO for its take on The Flower Farm’s messaging, which the organisation’s head of European operations, Inke van der Sluijs, described as ‘short-sighted’ and ‘misleading’.
“In the short term, boycotting palm oil results in a lack of incentive for farmers to change to sustainable farming practices,” she told this publication. “ In the long-term, boycotting palm oil does not address our increasing demand for agricultural commodities, whereas collaborative efforts and standards like the RSPO are committed to creating meaningful change and a sustainable solution.”
Before getting rid of palm oil, van der Sluijs suggests we ask: what is the impact of the alternatives? “Can they be sustainably and ethically produced? We should let consumers know that an oil palm produces four to 10 times more oil per hectare than any other oil crop.”
There is the risk, with any commodity, that boycotts could place strain on alternative and sometimes less developed industries.
Shea is, in fact, predominantly a wild crop – meaning that the commodity is not currently associated with the same number of sustainability issues facing the palm oil sector. However, whether the replacement be shea or another edible oil, van der Sluijs warned that ‘moving from one commodity to another’ is not the answer.
“Currently, there is no verification system in place for shea that guarantees sustainable practices, the protection of worker’s rights and forest conservation,” she said, referencing the work that RSPO does in the palm oil sector.
“Moving away from one commodity to another does not eliminate these issues and can potentially contribute further to tropical deforestation. For example, recent reports from the International Union for Conservation of Nature stated that switching to other vegetable oils may very well result in more primary forests being converted into agricultural land, not less, and that RSPO standards show the best results for levels of assurance and protection of biodiversity.
“For Dutch consumers, it is imperative that the link between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ palm oil is broken. Boycotting palm oil risks further damage to our environment, instead we should demand sustainable palm oil.”