Palm oil and its connection to the endangerment of diversity is a subject of increasing significance and one that long been important to me. I was exuberant when this article about Halloween candy and its link to orangutans popped up on my Facebook news feed a week and a half ago. Since then I have sporadically seen articles breach the subject of palm oil. While I don’t pretend to be an expert on the topic, I have witnessed the devastation first hand. It’s about time mainstream media begins to discuss palm oil and its tragic effects on some of the most diverse areas in the world.
Since the 1990’s production of palm oil has skyrocketed. It is now used in nearly 50 per cent of all packaged products. In the last 10 years, import of palm oil has increased tenfold in the United States alone. The origin of the oil is mostly in rainforest rich nations such as Malaysia and Indonesia.
You might wonder why it has become so popular. Palm oil is trans-fat free. Trans-fat is required to be labeled on products sold in the US and many other countries. Soon trans-fat may even be banned in the United States. So, companies have sought out palm oil as a substitute for other oils containing trans-fat. Palm oil makes their product appear healthier.
To make matters worse, many experts have called palm oil the solution to the American health crisis. Dr. Oz even lauded the oil as having the ability to stop the signs of aging.
The Downside (a pretty mild title for what you are about to read)
• Production of palm oil has expanded too rapidly to be sustainable. Palm oil plantations have caused the terrifyingly expansive destruction of rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia, where 90% of palm oil is produced. According the Rainforest Action Network’s Fact Sheet, palm oil plantations currently cover a total of 16 million acres. This is comparable to the size of West Virginia. By 2020, the Indonesia government plans to add an additional 44 million more acres (the size of Missouri).
• The destruction of rainforests is synonymous with the destruction of habitat for many endangered species. At present, the Sumatran rhinoceros, tigers, orangutans, and the Asian elephant are seeing the effects of deforestation. In fact, 80% of orangutan habitat has been lost due to growing demand for palm oil. (Note that while these are the most critically endangered species that have been affected, a wide range of animals have suffered a population decrease.)
• Animals are not the only group to rely on pre-palm oil plantation land. Indonesia and Malaysia are full of indigenous groups that need natural forests for their livelihoods. As if stripping people of their livelihoods isn’t bad enough, conflicts between these indigenous groups and palm oil corporations are common. In far too many cases, corporations resort to violence and murder in order to gain control of land.
• Tragically, many palm oil plantations rely on children to produce their product. Child labor by itself is reprehensible, but too often, these are cases of forced labor. Modern day slavery has been documented frequently in palm oil plantations across Malaysia.
• Palm oil production has also caused the rapid destruction of peatlands, a natural sequester of carbon, in Indonesia. As a result of the carbon released by the damage to this massive area, Indonesia has become the third largest creator of greenhouse gases in the world, behind only the United States and China.
• Finally, closer to home, the health benefits of palm oil may be exaggerated. While palm oil is trans-fat free, it contains a significant amount of saturated fat and has been shown to lead to higher cholesterol than other oils. To read more about this, check out this informative article from the SFGate.
The destruction of animal habitat, the violations of human rights, and the negative effect on global warming caused by palm oil production add up to a losing formula. In no way is palm oil worth the tragedies it causes.
However, ending our dependence on palm oil may be harder than we think. Palm oil is used in a large number of packaged foods and is confusingly labeled on many of those products making it hard to avoid. So how can you help?
5 Ways to Make a Difference
1. Buy palm oil free candy
For your next get together or that inevitable sweet tooth, be sure to purchase candy made without palm oil. At the very least, buy candy made using certified sustainable palm oil (although whether this is as destructive or not remains to be seen). To help in this endeavor, El Paso Zoo has created this useful list documenting which candies are safe to buy and which are not.
2. Download an app
Palm oil can morph into more than 12 different names on ingredient labels. Even for the best memories, avoiding palm oil containing products is near impossible. To make our lives easier, El Paso Zoo has done it again with an app called the Palm Oil Guide & Scanner. It allows consumers to determine if a product includes palm oil by scanning the product’s bar code. The app is free for download on Android and Apple iOS.
3. Sign a petition
Be a part of the Rainforest Action Network’s petition to end our dependence on palm oil by uploading a picture of your palm to their website. The organization wants to collect 60,600 photos of palms, one for every orangutan left in the wild. They plan to forward these photos as an anti-palm oil protest to the Snack Food 20 (the most popular snack food corporations).
4. Educate yourself
Read a book or watch a film about the palm oil crisis and its effects on orangutans. Many of the profits from these sources of information go directly to the protection of orangutans or orangutan rehabilitation centers. Say No To Palm Oil has put together a fantastic list of materials with which you can learn more about this catastrophic issue.
5. Write a letter
Let those in power know about your concern. You can write letters to companies in order to discourage use of palm oil. You can also write to your local politicians to encourage mandatory labeling of palm oil. On a more positive note, you can even write to those companies not using palm oil in order to thank them. The Orangutan Project has put together a great letter writing kit complete with sample letters. Some of the material is specific to Australia, but can be easily adapted to other countries or legislatures. The kit is available for download on The Orangutan Project’s website.
Let’s do the right thing and protect our world for those generations yet to come.