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We should not lose our critical faculties because something is presented as Scottish

WHAT IS IT about so much of Scottish media news reporting that it has to see everything through the prism of nationalism? I fully understand we all like to read of our ain folk doing well, but this should not mean we lose our  analytical and critical faculties in the process.

The temptation to present anything that has its origins in Scotland, often no matter how tenuous, as Scotland leading the world, or Scotland ahead in Europe, or the UK, is rarely off our screens, be it due to politicians grandstanding, the media beating their chauvinistic chests or PR companies pushing a line they know will find favour simply because it’s, well, Scottish.

Whether it is cynicism or experience, I can usually filter out the pumped-up claims and look to establish the truth of the matter, and so it was when yet another example came past me just the other day when I saw STV publish a news story about the creation of a new substitute to replace the ‘dreaded’ palm oil. Not only did the presentation of Scottish exceptionalism stand out but the innate assumption that palm oil is bad, ergo any replacement must be good, was already accepted. There were no balancing questions as to what the latest invention of food processing would really mean or what the unintended consequences might be – its supposed benefits were taken as a given and condemnation of palm oil was presented as “Fact”.

It was typical of so much that is written about food, business, science and health – it lacked context and balance.

Without the much needed context of the changes in the palm oil industry in the last decade the irony of the story appearing now would be lost on readers. Yet here it was – at a time when the palm oil industry has listened to its detractors by making great strides in addressing deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions by adhering to the RSPO and MSPO quality standard certification schemes – it was taken as a good thing we can manufacture a palm oil alternative that requires we grow more of a crop that requires more land because it produces far less oil per hectare than oil palm.

Simply put, a recipe that includes by-products of linseed (which comes from Flax) and rapeseed oil, developed by scientists in a Scottish laboratory, is believed to offer an alternative to palm oil that ergo must reduce deforestation.

There was no mention in the report that in its purest form, rapeseed oil is considered mildly toxic to humans when consumed in high quantities due to its elevated levels of erucic acid, while linseed oil comes from flax. That means, in order to arrive at a synthetic palm oil substitute, food manufacturers would need to use at least one if not two energy intensive oil seeds – this would require not only more energy for processing but also require  more land and more fertiliser. Why not just use palm oil?

Globally, palm oil supplies between 35% to 40% of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just 10% of the land used to produce all other vegetable oils.

To get the same amount from alternative oils like rapeseed, soybean or sunflower oil you would need anything between 4-to-10 times more land  according to Chester Zoo, which would just shift the problem to other parts of the world and threaten other habitats, species and communities. What the STV report did not mention is the WWF acknowledges palm oil can contribute to sustainability if it’s managed properly – and that’s the achievement of the modern palm oil industry that is being ignored repeatedly in reports like that published by STV..

At the time of writing, around 93% of all palm oil imported into Europe is sustainably sourced and so does not require deforestation. In addition to that, around 96% of Malaysian palm oil plantations — many of them run by 300,000 smallholder farmers rather than corporations or industrial farms — are now MSPO-certified under the Malaysia Sustainable Palm Oil scheme. This is a new nationally mandated sustainability standard enforceable by law and the first of its kind around the world.

As for deforestation, an important piece of research was recently published by Global Forest Watch in June 2023, which noted a sharp reduction in forest loss in Malaysia and in some places, deforestation is even being reversed.

Oil palm corporations appear to be taking action with some 83% of palm oil refining capacity now operating under a ‘No Deforestation, Peat and Exploitation (NDPE)’ commitment.

Yes, it may be a scientific achievement that a synthetic substitute to palm oil has been concocted, but be it in Scotland or elsewhere, the reality remains that palm oil is popular because it provides food manufacturers (such as bakers) with a reliable product at a competitive price – and much of the reason for its growing dominance is its high yield per hectare against the high land use of various seed plants and the high cost of seed oil extraction processes that need large amounts of energy.

Palm oil is not the bogeyman the STV report presents it as – that its cultivation once caused deforestation is true, but like Scotland’s hills used to be covered in trees, that is in the past – and by ignoring the progress that has been made the cause of environmentalism will be set back by causing the cultivation of even more land to grow rapeseed and flax.

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Photo of The Thinker, by Rodin, courtesy of The Rodin Museum.


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