In brief: Palm oil is used in many products, under many pseudonyms. Palm plantations are causing deforestation and direct harm to wildlife, as well as social injustice. However, change is imminent: while it’s nearly impossible to remove all palm oil from store shelves at this time, the oil can be farmed sustainably. Consumers can look for certification of this and encourage their governments to incentivize or require transparent labeling and reasonable practices.
Meet the “Man of the Forest” – the orangutan. This charismatic creature plays a vital role in maintaining rainforest biodiversity by dispersing seeds, and shares about 96.4% of its genes with humans. Yet some estimates predict that that intelligent face might only be possible to behold staring out of a textbook in the next 5-10 years. According to worldwildlife.org, “A century ago there were probably more than 230,000 orangutans in total, but the Bornean orangutan is now estimated to number about 45,000-69,000 (Endangered) and the Sumatran about 7,500 (Critically Endangered). ”
One major reason for this is human activity, including habitat destruction to make way for palm oil plantations. The plantations replace the biodiverse forests that orangutans and other beautiful and rare creatures can’t live without: distinctive proboscis monkeys, majestic Sumatran tigers, fascinating pygmy elephants, and adorable sun bears are among the slew of notable wildlife whose populations are being decimated by deforestation and its effects. Beyond loss of habitat, clearing the forest and building roads for the plantation workers makes animals more accessible to poachers and agents of the illegal pet trade. Poachers, as well as simply the process of burning and chopping down trees, also cause the brutal deaths of orangutans and other animals, which would have been safe in the forest had it been protected.
It’s been estimated that 98% of Indonesia’s rainforest will be cleared within 9 years. If palm plantations continue to replace the unparalleled rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, not only will the world bid farewell to numerous amazing creatures found nowhere else, but the destructive processes used to clear the forest will contribute to global climate change and remove productive, CO2-absorbing rainforests from the face of the earth, bringing our planet that much closer to the apocalypse the most excitable climate scientists have been predicting – not to mention intense boredom due to the loss of so much inspiring biodiversity.
So stop creating all those terrible palm oil plantations! is the natural reaction, and the one I had after first hearing the news. After all, who even uses palm oil? I’ve never purchased it once…
Actually, I have, several times a week, and most people reading this have too, without even realizing it. Palm oil is that secret ingredient that makes many of our products as cheap as they are, with as long of a shelf life and with the textures to which we have become accustomed. It can be grown using half the land other types of vegetable oils need, making it efficient and cheap to produce, and nearly irresistible to manufacturers.
As a result, palm oil is sneaked into tons of processed foods: cookies, crackers, candy, nut butters, packaged popcorn, pudding, cereal, instant noodles, ice cream, non-dairy coffee creamers, margarines…the list goes on and on. The kernel of the palm can also be used in products, which would be listed as palm kernel oil in a host of items. Some non-food products, such as toothpaste, soap, lipstick, and car and house cleaning products also use palm oil and chemicals derived from it. Both food and non-food manufacturers will often use palm oil but call it something else, such as sodium lauryl sulfate, cetyl palmitate, glycerin, stearic acid, vegetable oil, and others.
Are you prepared to live without all these products for the rest of your life? I know I’m not. Thankfully, there is a way to compromise. By supporting sustainably sourced palm products, the jobs created by the palm industry remain intact, our pantries remain stocked with Nutella and our teeth properly brushed with Colgate toothpaste (for a reasonable price), and no more orangutans need suffer. As consumers, citizens and societies, we are powerful.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a not-for-profit organization comprised of 1,000 NGOs, business people, stakeholders, and producers involved in every step of the palm oil supply process (member count from November 2012.) Formed in 2004, it is committed to providing consumers with sustainably sourced and fairly traded palm oil. The RSPO created the Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) criteria in 2008. In order to label a product as CSPO certified, companies must refrain from destroying primary or very biodiverse forest, as well as reduce the use of pesticides and fires while obtaining palm oil for their products. They must also treat workers fairly and respect the needs of the local people where plantations are built. Products bearing the RSPO Trademark use sustainably sourced palm products.
Around 15% of all the palm oil produced in the world each year is certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. This number seems quite small: that means that 85% of all the palm oil leeching into our pantries was harvested in a dubious manner, at best. However, in a way the 15% is big: in the teens, it indicates that consumers are beginning to become aware of the environmental and social consequences of mainstream, destructive palm oil production methods. And we don’t like it. Occasionally, we dislike it so much that we make our voices heard. Companies hear our voices. And sometimes they listen.
In 2013, Ferrero officially announced its total reliance on 100% segregated, RSPO certified palm oil in all Nutella sold in France, as well as some other European markets. It also reportedly met its 2015 goal for all Nutella sold throughout the world to be made with this segregated, certified palm oil. Colgate-Palmolive has promised the public that it will use 100% sustainable palm oil by its 2015 report. Other companies are making similar pledges. By voting with our wallets, we can show companies we care how they make their products so delicious and useful. The RSPO website includes a list of some products bearing the RSPO Trademark, found here: http://www.rspo.org/trademark/trademark-products-gallery. More companies have pledged to go the sustainable route by a certain date.
However, corporations are often tricky. Many find ways to deceive consumers with a labyrinth of descriptions regarding their status on sustainability. They may be RSPO members, but not be currently sourcing the palm oil for their products sustainably. (Such hypocrites!) Some mix sustainably and unsustainably sourced palm oil in one production line. Others may use RSPO labeling, but not the seal that may only be used if they are certified officially. This indicates beating around the bush – their product is neither 100% segregated nor 100% certified sustainable, the two labels you should look for when purchasing sustainably sourced palm oil products, according to 1millionwomen.com.
How to solve for this? Consumers could demand transparent labeling, as is currently being demanded for GMO products hitting store shelves. The government, like corporations, is motivated to please the voters, and will often listen to their voices. According to Reuters, the European Union announced that, as of December 2014, all products sold in Europe that used palm fruit oil had to be labeled with it as an ingredient. In Malaysia, one government official reportedly stated an intention to create a new labeling system to let European Union consumers know whether their palm oil has been sourced in an environmentally-friendly manner.
Meanwhile, the US and many other governments allow palm fruit oil to slip under the radar: the US at least requires that it be distinguished from vegetable oil, but as previously mentioned, palm fruit oil can wear a whole wardrobe of disguising names and can cite sustainability even if this claim is shaky. It’s possible that more stringent labeling laws pertaining specifically to the level of sustainability would help consumers make educated choices. Meanwhile, self-education and close examination of labels is always in order while shopping.
Perhaps the best route is compromise. Change can straddle public and private lines: if the governments of palm producing and consuming nations, as well as the producers, investors, workers, and consumers, collaborated to incentivize the plantation owners and buyers to reduce their negative impact on environmental and social well-being, the results would be mutually beneficial. With a combination of consumer pressure, worker and employer agreements on the plantations, possible government-issued rewards for improving sustainability and maybe consequences for excessive deforestation, all manufacturers will get on the bandwagon in pursuit of those consumer and government dollars. Together, we are strongest. It can all start with one voice.
Personally, I admit that on this blog I have published many recipes that probably use products in which the palm oil (or whatever that company decided to call it on the label) was not sustainably sourced. It’s nearly impossible to avoid these products in today’s grocery stores, at least in the US. However, my personal goal is to become more aware of the products I buy, and to increase the awareness of others by seeking out ethical products, promoting the few certified sustainable brands I can find, and encouraging others as well as myself to show corporations that we prefer transparent labeling and, ultimately, show a clear preference for sustainably sourced products that did not cause any deforestation. Hopefully, 100% certified sustainable, 100% segregated palm oil will soon hit store shelves around the world in a big way.
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