With olive oil being touted as an antidote to ageing, it’s little wonder it has suddenly become incredibly popular as a salad dressing and a cooking ingredient. The great rush to meet this increased demand has led to expanded production in Mediterranean countries, which is now threatening local ecology and causing large-scale soil erosion. Buying organic, ethical cooking oils helps to prevent these problems – and ensures that the product is free from GM ingredients.
Trouble in Spain
An important advantage of most olive oil is that it is almost certain to be GM free, but the food and development organisation Sustain reports that overintensification of olive oil production in Spain has resulted in erosion and other agronomic and environmental problems, causing irreversible damage in over 40 per cent of Andalucia. The new methods of production have also involved increasing the use of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. Sustain recommends that people choose organic olive oil wherever possible.
Purity at a cost
Most of the UK’s oilseed rape is grown as a winter crop, which Sustain argues has had a detrimental effect on Britain’s environment, causing biodiversity to suffer and bird populations to decline. Winter crops have also at times provided an excuse for mass shooting of wood pigeons.
60-second green guide
- Buy glass bottles instead of plastic ones
- There is little risk of active GM materials being present in any oil
- For the lowest risk of GM ‘contamination’, use olive oil
- Most vegetable oils are equally good for you
Although British farmers are not likely to be introducing GM crops just yet, the whole issue remains important for cooking oils. Worryingly for people concerned about GM issues, vegetable oil produced from GM plants does not have to be labelled as GM. This is because the processing is thought to eliminate any proteins or DNA that might otherwise be present. Ethical shoppers should be aware that maize oil, soya oil and canola (rapeseed) oils may be processed from GM plants, especially if they originate from North America, whose international trade in grains is based on a commodity flow system where no distinction is made between GM and non-GM crops.
In 2004, new rules for GM labelling came into force in all EU Member States which means that products such as flour, oils and glucose syrups have to be labelled as GM if they are from a GM source.
Most supermarkets refuse to say which companies produce their own-brand cooking oils. Pressure from people may change this policy eventually, but until we can be certain of the identity of the ownbrand suppliers, the brand will continue to be rated with the supermarket. Unlike other companies, supermarkets are rated according to their stocking policies. A recent positive development, however, is that supermarkets are beginning to produce their own brand organic olive oils.
The multinationals Unilever and Mitsubishi own most of the recognised olive oil brands. Neither of these companies boast particularly respectable ethical records. Both have received criticism for their animal rights and welfare policies, as well as for using GM in some of their products. Mitsubishi is involved in nuclear and armament activities and Unilever have had a number of labour complaints levelled against them. Suma and Meridian received the highest Ethical Rankings in our research. There is yet to be a major brand which practices fair trade.
More expensive oils are likely to come in glass bottles, which are easy to recycle. Products in the lower price range are almost always packaged in plastic bottles, some of which may be made from PVC (which is identifiable by a ‘3’ inside a recycling symbol on the base of the bottle). Plastic recycling in the UK is still very poorly developed, with about 95 per cent of waste being landfilled or incinerated.
Ethical Cooking Oil Rankings Detailed Table
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We have created ethical rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Suma, Meridian, Filippo Beriot, Olivio, Flora, Pura, Princes, Mazola, Crisp & Dry
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