BY NICK LASKY
Palm oil is humanity’s most popular vegetable oil and it is used in about 50% of all packaged products sold in supermarkets.
Unfortunately, the growth of the palm oil industry has led to huge amounts of destruction of tropical rainforests, irreparable damage to the lives of forest communities, and the release of massive amounts of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, adding to the greenhouse effect.
Palm oil is used in so many products like ice cream and cosmetics to fuel and shampoo. Why is this? From an economic standpoint, palm oil has some amazing advantages. It is relatively cheap to produce, it is very versatile, it creates a very high yield, and it is already the most widely produced oil on the market. In fact, since 2000, palm oil imports to the Unites States have skyrocketed by 255%. But the problem arises when you look at the terrible consequences that this palm oil rampage is having on the environment, the animals, and communities.
Roughly 85 percent of palm oil is grown in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea. The explosion in worldwide demand for palm oil has created the need for more and more “palm oil plantations.” Unfortunately, one of the primary sources of land the industry is converting to meet this demand are the tropical rainforests in these countries.
The tropical rainforests in Indonesia, which are some of the most diverse, are home to several highly endangered animals like the Sumatran orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and Sumatran elephants. The palm oil industry’s deforestation is quickly erasing the only natural habitats for these species. So you get an idea for the scale of this, in Kalimantan, a large portion of Indonesia, 90% of the new palm oil plantations from 1990-2010 came directly from forest cover aka rainforests.
In addition, the clearing of rainforests releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, one of the primary greenhouse gases causing climate change. These forests are natural storehouses for carbon, but when they are burned down in large amounts, it becomes a very dangerous situation for our Earth’s atmosphere.
Here is a quick video that illustrates the bulk of what is going on with this epidemic:
So now that you know about the problem, what can you do?
As it turns out there is not such a clear solution. The most obvious one is for companies to simply cut palm oil out of their products, but this would create many problems.
Firstly, the palm oil yield based on the amount of land is 4-10 times higher than other crops per unit of cultivated land (like sunflower, soybean, or rapeseed). This means that if palm oil were out, companies would have to shift to another oil, which would inevitably require more agricultural land than is already being used to create more supply of these palm oil alternatives. This will only create more environmental damage. Secondly, the palm oil industry is how 4.5 million people in Indonesia and Malaysia make a living. It is not so easy to uproot that in any drastic fashion. Thirdly, palm oil has certain unique properties that make it very versatile for food products as compared to other oils (most importantly the taste and texture).
So here’s what you can do:
1) Use your purchasing power to buy only from companies that use sustainable palm oil.
Here are two indexes of “palm oil scorecards” of major companies that let you know which companies are using sustainable practices and products.
2) Spread awareness of what is going on to family and friends.
3) Take the 28 Day Palm Oil Challenge.
4) Support organizations and initiatives that are working for sustainable palm oil like Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and Rainforest Action Network. Here is a site where you can find current petitions and campaigns against unsustainable palm oil.
Now you may not realize that a product you are buying contains palm oil because products that contain palm oil and its derivatives use over 25 different names, making it hard to know whether or not palm oil was used. You can check the full list here.
Ellwood Thompson’s is in full support with organizations, projects, and initiatives that are attempting to make the palm oil industry sustainable.
Ellwood Thompson’s Food Advocates