Belgian Waffles without Palm Oil?
Belgium has a lot to offer – for one, its pastries and chocolates are famous in Europe and beyond. Many of these made with palm oil.
This also leaves Belgium vulnerable to volatility in world markets. It wrestles with a budget deficit that hovers around 100% of GDP. High labour costs that impact its international competitiveness, an ageing population and rising social expenditures are further challenges.
In 2014, Belgium produced almost 600,000 tonnes of rapeseed oil and 117,000 tonnes of linseed oil. Given its sizable food and general processing industries, it imported 1.8 million tonnes of oils and fats, mainly rapeseed oil, palm oil, sunflower oil and soybean oil.
Almost all of the imported palm oil came via the Netherlands or directly from Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. Imports from Malaysia and Indonesia almost doubled between 2009 and 2014. However, intake fell via the Netherlands, while demand was flat for palm oil from Papua New Guinea.
Belgium’s consumption of palm oil remained relatively high, albeit with year-on-year fluctuations (Figure 1). This was in spite of the anti-palm oil campaign waged. Demand for palm kernel oil and palm kernel meal was generally stable.
Figure 1: Belgium – palm oil imports by product (thousand tonnes)
Campaign built on dubious claims
The biggest challenge palm oil faces in Belgium is an elaborate ‘No palm oil’ campaign built on unjustified environmental and health claims:
- It is alleged that the expansion of oil palm cultivation results in the destruction of tropical rainforests – the habitat of animals like the endangered orang utan – and that it releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
- In terms of health, the lobby has wrongly linked palm oil with coronary heart disease. Most scientists now agree that saturated fatty acids have a place in a healthy diet. What are harmful are trans fats – which are not found in palm oil.
Many food producers have reacted to such sentiments by sticking a label on products, stating that these do not contain palm oil. This campaign has variously led to calls for legislative action, imposition of punitive taxes, and even a ban on palm oil. But all these were withdrawn once their initiators familiarised themselves with the facts.
A telling example is that of the French Environment Minister Ségolène Royal who, in mid-2015, called for a boycott of Europe’s favourite chocolate-spread because it contains palm oil.
Leading NGOs like Greenpeace and the WWF rose to the defence of palm oil and forced her to back-pedal.
They have come to understand that the characteristics of production, and comparisons with other vegetable oils, make a green case for palm oil. For instance, the oil palm yield per hectare is higher than that of other oil crops, while the sector’s use of agrochemicals is lower.
It seems that some policy makers are not aware of these facts. The Belgian authorities, as well as producers and retail chains, would be well advised to rethink their policy on palm oil – for it is inevitable that consumers will find out that they are being seriously misled.