The Dairy Farmers of Canada are putting together a working group to look into claims that palm fats are increasing the firmness of Canadian butter. (Grace Kennedy/The Observer)

The Dairy Farmers of Canada are putting together a working group to look into claims that palm fats are increasing the firmness of Canadian butter. (Grace Kennedy/The Observer)

#Buttergate: How COVID-19 and palm oil set the stage for Canadian butter concerns

The final story in a three part series on dairy farming, palm oil and Canadian consumers

One year ago, Norm Sperling’s store went through a lot of toilet paper. A lot.

“Toilet paper, paper towel and Lysol wipes, those things you just couldn’t get. They were all bought up,” Sperling, the owner and manager of Agassiz’s Supervalu, said.

But that wasn’t the only change Sperling saw in 2020. Over the last year Sperling has had to increase his orders for groceries of all types, as more people stayed home and stocked up on supplies when they hit the store.

“People were staying home, they were scared to go out,” he said. “They were, I’m not going to say hoarding, but they were getting their supplies so they didn’t have to go.”

RELATED: Post-COVID grocery store sales high but below the mid-March peak, StatCan says

That included butter, a product that has come under increased scrutiny in the past month as Canadians hit social media to wonder whether the use of palm fats in dairy feed was making Canadian butter firmer than before.

Butter consumption by Canadians has gone up 12.4 per cent last year, and that increased demand is something Dalhousie researcher Sylvian Charlebois suggested could be a cause for butter that stays hard at room temperature.

Canadian dairy cows only produce so much butterfat — in B.C., it averages around 4.2 kilograms of butterfat per 100 litres of milk — but using feed supplements like palm oil can help increase the amount of butterfat a cow produces, although it might also make dairy products more firm.

RELATED: #Buttergate: When it comes to cows, you are what you eat

Charlebois’s theory, which he shared in a column published by numerous news organizations, was that the COVID-19 demand for dairy may have prompted more farmers to use palm oil to meet the demand for butterfat.

Agassiz dairy farmers Duane Post and Julaine Treur said this wasn’t the case — at least in British Columbia, which provides only nine per cent of the country’s dairy quota.

In March 2020, Post said there was a surge in demand for dairy products in grocery stores as people were asked to stay home. Dairy farmers in B.C. got a notice saying they would be able to ship more milk than their quota allowed. Two weeks later, that incentive ended as restaurants closed and processors found themselves with more product than they could sell.

“You can’t change your milk output in two weeks,” Post said. “It takes a lot longer than that.”

The total amount of butterfat produced by dairy cows increased about 1.3 per cent in 2020 over 2019. In March, the first month the pandemic really hit the country, butterfat production was up 1.4 per cent from March 2019, and in April it was down 2.4 per cent.

Imports on butter, which are increased when Canadian cows can’t meet the country’s demand, went down 4.4 per cent from 2019, although this was largely because of a drop in butter imported to re-export as part of a new products.

In his store, Sperling didn’t see any issues with supply, despite how fast it was leaving the shelves. He said supply chain problems were limited to cleaning supplies and toilet paper, and products like yeast during the baking spree of last spring.

For Dairy Farmers of Canada vice-president David Wiens, a farmer himself in Grunthal, Man., this is an example of how supply management works well for farmers.

“This was something that was in no one’s playbook, so we were all learning as we went along,” he said about COVID-19. “We were able to send signals and we got a quick response, where we were quickly able to adjust our production levels according to what the needs were in the market.”

Whether farmers in Canada used more palm oil in their cows’ feed than usual is still unclear. But the use of palm oil in dairy feed has been around a lot longer than COVID-19 — a column in the farmer-centric Grainews back in 2017 said that there had been an explosive increase in the use of palm fats — and so far there isn’t anything concrete to connect the allegedly firmer butter to an increase in palm fats.

RELATED: #Buttergate: Concerns around hard butter hit Agassiz and beyond

But that connection is what the Dairy Farmers of Canada working group is going to investigate.

On Feb. 19, the organization announced it would create a working group of experts in animal health, human health, milk composition and dairy processing, as well as consumer stakeholders.

“I have full confidence in the work that they will do, that they will be able to separate out the myth from the science,” Wiens said. “It’s going to be very important to the Canadian dairy industry in terms of responding to consumer concerns.”

Charlebois agreed.

“Some farming practices have not aged well,” Charlebois said about palm fats. “I think what they didn’t realize is there’s a complete disconnect between what’s acceptable on farms and what’s acceptable in society.”

That’s especially true for palm oil, which has been at the centre of controversy for more than 20 years.

RELATED: Child labour behind every Canadian’s grocery haul, and it may get worse: World Vision

The versatile oil is found in close to half of all packaged grocery store products — everything from pizza and chocolate to deodorant and lipstick. The palm fruit produces more oil per acre than any other equivalent vegetable oil crop, supplying 35 per cent of the world’s demand on just 10 per cent of its cropland, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

However, the creation of oil palm tree plantations is a major driver of deforestation in places like Malaysia, where 47 per cent of its forest loss has been connected with palm oil. These plantations reduce local biodiversity and place increased stress on endangered animals like orangutans.

Concerns around palm oil pushed the development of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2004, which was established to develop criteria for certified sustainable oil. These include things like not using child labour, respecting local opinion for operations planned on their land and that new plantings do not cause deforestation.

In 2019, there were 4,577 organizations registered with (RSPO) which worked to produce sustainable palm oil products. Some of these products included things like the palm fat supplements fed to Post’s dairy cows in Agassiz, which come from an RSPO-certified company in Malaysia.

For some consumers, the certification isn’t enough to ensure that palm oil is truly sustainable, and many are working to keeping it out of their diets regardless of sustainability.

“If the results are inconclusive in that palm oil is not responsible (for hard butter), well they’re going to have to ask themselves the question: is it okay to … say to Canadians this is a local sustainable product if we’re importing palm oil from halfway around the world,” Charlebois said. “I think there are some ethical questions that would need to be asked.”

RELATED: UBC scientist to share experiences rehabilitating orangutans in Indonesia

What will happen with the use of palm fats in Canada’s dairy industry is still up in the air. The Dairy Farmers of Canada have asked all farmers to use alternatives to palm fat while the working group is investigating — a process that will take at least several months.

Agassiz organic farmer Treur, for one, is looking forward to what that investigation will bring.

“Dairy farmers want our consumers to be happy,” she said. “We want them to be confident that we are producing milk in an ethical and sustainable way.”

“All farmers are looking forward to seeing what the working group through Dairy Farmers of Canada have come up with,” she added. “If a change is necessary … the whole industry will look at different ways to fill that market need.”

This is the last in a three part series on #Buttergate for the Agassiz Harrison Observer. You can check out the previous two stories, “Hard butter concerns hit Agassiz and beyond” and “When it comes to cows, you are what you eat,” on our website.

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