The other day after school, my 7-year old daughter went immediately to the kitchen and began reading the labels (like mama, like daughter) of all of the things on our shelves. She told me that someone from the Philadelphia Zoo had come to speak to their class about palm oil - where it comes from, which items contain it, what’s happening in our world because of human’s increased demand for palm oil, and what we can do about it. Her class is working to help spread the word about palm oil and how it is affecting our planet: from its human and animal inhabitants, to the land where it is grown, and how we can change the negative course production of this oil has taken. Now, I’m used to learning from my children - but often the things I learn are of the more abstract nature: patience, multitasking, how to have fun. This, however, was something quite different, far more concrete, and sobering. In sharing her knowledge, she has inspired me to become more informed about palm oil, and in doing so, I’ve learned more about rainforests and orangutans - the primary species negatively, and drastically, affected by palm oil - than I’ve ever known before.
I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned, in hopes you too can become a bit more aware, and perhaps, might care to spread the word, and potentially take steps to help reverse the damage that’s been done to our primate sisters and brothers and the land where they live.
What is palm oil?
Palm oil is currently the most widely produced edible oil - derived from the African oil palm plant. It is grown in rainforest areas; primarily Borneo & Sumatra. According to the UN Food & Agriculture Organization, nearly 150 million tons was produced in 2009(up from 40 million in 2007). It’s in food, baby formula, cleaning products, and cosmetics. If you check your pantry, shower, make-up bag, I’m betting you’ll see it hiding out in the ingredients’ lists, under several different aliases: palm oil, palm kernel oil, palmitate, palmate, palmitic acid, glyceryl stearate, or stearic acid. It’s ubiquitous. I know I was surprised.
What’s the problem with palm oil?
Since palm oil is often used to replace trans fats in foods, and is also used in bio-fuel development, the demand for it has exploded in recent years; particularly since many food companies have felt increasing pressure to remove hydrogenated oils from their foods. The problem with this rate of growth, however, is several-fold: the sudden and sustained increase in demand has led to outright destruction of rainforest in order to plant palm tree plantations. Millions of acres of pristine forest are being clear-cut, with no care being given to the inhabitants. Loss of rainforest means loss of biodiversity, as well as the reduction of filtering of vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, which can lead to further climate change. Not only are animals and land being exploited, but so are workers in these areas… because when you need to harvest a lot of land, quickly, you have to get a lot of people to work, quickly, without much care given to their well-being. Profits over compassion.
On the biodiversity side of things: most affected by our seemingly insatiable desire for palm oil are organutans. Indonesia, where most of the world’s palm oil is derived, is home to 90% of the world’s orangutan population (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16336582). Our primate cousins, and their habitat, are in very real and immediate danger due to the demand for palm oil. Some staggering facts:
- In 1900 there were approximately 315,000 orangutans in the wild. Today, there are fewer than 50,000 - and those are split into groups with grim long-term survival prospects. (source: http://www.greenpalm.org/en/about-palm-oil/environmental-impact) The organgutan population in Sumatra was cut nearly in half in a space of 7 years: from ~12,000 in 1993 to ~6,500 in 2000. (source: http://www.orangutan.com/threats-to-orangutans/)
- In 1997 and 1998 it is estimated that nearly 8,000 (Eight THOUSAND!) orangutans were killed through uncontrolled burning (much of it due to clearing the land for palm oil plantations).
- Because orangutans are seen as “pests” on palm oil plantations, some palm oil companies offer poachers ~$100 per dead orangutan. Between 2008 - 2009 at least 750 orangutans are thought to have been killed on palm plantations. (source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16336582)
- A study by Forest Watch Indonesia indicates 15 million hectares of forests were lost to deforestation for palm plantations between 2000 and 2009 (source: http://www.orangutans.com.au/Orangutans-Survival-Information/15-million-hectares-of-forest-destroyed-from-2000-to-2009-FWI.aspx)
- If nothing changes, experts estimate that orangutans could be extinct in the wild anywhere from 10-25 years from now - making them the first species of great ape to be extinct. (source: http://www.orangutan.com/threats-to-orangutans/)
What is an orangutan?
If you’re not familiar with them, orangutans are our brownish-red primate cousins (the name orangutan comes from two Malay words: orang meaning people and hutan meaning forest) who share 98% of human’s genetic makeup. They are considered extremely intelligent: they have a wide “vocabulary” of sounds for communicating with each other and they create & use tools: leaf umbrellas to keep rain off, leaf cups for drinking water, sticks for obtaining honey from beehives... just to name a few. Studies have shown orangutans are able to grasp abstract concepts - like exchanging “money” for food (source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7797776.stm). Female orangutans typically have their first offspring around 15 or 16 years old, and only have one baby at a time. Baby orangutans stay with their mother for many years (average of 10), nursing for an average of 4 years. They live almost solely in the trees - sleeping, eating, and playing among the branches. It is their low rate of reproduction, and their sole reliance on the rainforests of Indonesia which is making the destruction of said rain forests for palm oil so devastating to these creatures.
How are these two related?
In addition to rain forest destruction that is happening in order to create palm plantations, there are other factors, such as ongoing kidnapping of infant orangutans for the illegal pet trade (whose mothers are often killed while defending their babies), orangutan poaching by palm plantation owners, and clear cutting/burning for logging purposes. Orangutans rely on the rain forests to support their life - food, shelter, safety from predators. Without the rain forests, orangutans can’t exist in the wild. They are currently considered critically endangered - estimates suggest if things remain unchanged, they will be the first great ape species to become EXTINCT (some estimates suggest this could happen in less than twenty years).
Typing this makes me shudder. These loving, feeling, thinking animals - who carry, nurse, and care for their babies for years, are considered one of the most intelligent of the great apes... will no longer live in the wild because of what humans have done, and are continuing to do.
What can we do about this?
One school of thought is to boycott all companies that use palm oil, or refusing to buy or use palm oil-containing products is the answer to this crisis. This may certainly lessen the pressure over time on the orangutans by reducing demand, but it may be too simplistic an answer, particularly when palm oil is so ubiquitous.
Another factor to consider is that many humans lives in the rainforest areas where palm is grown and harvested, have been impacted (positively and negatively) by the increased demand for palm oil. Much of the palm oil produced is grown by smallholders for whom palm production is their ONLY source of income (in Indonesia alone [orangutan’s primary habitat], 4.5 million people earn a living from palm oil). Palm oil produces far more edible oil than any other oil-producing plant and doesn’t require the type of pesticides or herbicides that other vegetable oil crops require (like soy). Reducing demand doesn’t necessarily mean helping people, land, or animals.
Another line of thinking is that if palm oil can be produced sustainably - by ensuring respectful and responsible treatment of the land and its inhabitants - the destruction of rainforest and speed of climate change can be slowed, while still protecting the livelihood of people. Sustainability efforts also address issues of safe and fair worker treatment (ensuring a living wage, restricting child labor, and exposure to pesticides by pregnant or breastfeeding women).
The WWF, Oxfam, and Conservation International support a move towards sustainable palm oil production, though some environmental groups, like Greenpeace, say the process of implementing sustainability measures is too slow, and amount to nothing more than greenwashing. The Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO http://www.rspo.org/) has been created to help palm oil producers become certified “sustainable” (this includes adhering to standards for issues such as: fair and safe worker treatment, fertilizer & pesticide use, soil and groundwater condition, waste management, and endangered species conservation) - which can in turn help consumers feel more confident that the palm oil they are purchasing isn’t contributing in as big a way to climate change, habitat destruction, and loss of life.
In the US, these major brands (http://www.virginiazoo.org/documents/palmOilShoppingGuide-Sept2010.pdf) are RSPO members (though, for other reasons, you may wish not to purchase from these companies… For example, Body Shop still uses parabens in their products, ConAgra uses foods that contain GMOs, Nestle promotes formula use in under-developed countries, and L’Oreal has a spotty record on animal testing):
Johnson & Johnson
Since starting research, I am left with mixed feelings about palm oil and sustainability. On one hand, I would like to just stop buying it. We don’t need it, there are products out there without it, and there are certainly other oils that can be used in lieu of palm, and if I’m not using it, I’m not contributing to hurting animals, land, and people.
On the other hand, there are gains to be had by purchasing products that speak to their sustainable production. When you buy something from a company that cares enough to talk about what they are doing and why - when it comes to sustainability and environmentalism - you’re sending a message that you want MORE of that type of behavior, from more companies. I think about where vegetarian/natural/organic options stood over 20 years ago, when I first stopped eating meat, to where they stand now. In the 90’s, I was lucky to find one brand of soy burger in an out-of-the-way health food store. Now, there are several brands, on the shelves in every major grocery store. Even discount grocery stores have some organic offerings. This has happened because people have let companies know they are interested in buying products that are natural, organic, vegetarian. Companies listen when their customers talk.
For us, since learning about palm oil, we have become much more aware of checking ingredient labels. I do try to avoid palm oil when possible, but when not, I choose only those companies which list their certification or talk about the issue of palm oil prominently on the label. I have written to several companies, asking about the source of their palm oil. Through interest and effort, I believe people can change what’s happening in the world because of palm oil.
Some organic & natural companies who use sustainably sourced palm oil (as I’ve evidenced clearly on their site, or packaging):
Earth Mama Angel Baby
Newman’s Own Organics
Whole Foods Market (on their website, they pledge to be using only sustainable palm oil in all of their store-brand foods by this year)
I’m really interested to hear what you think about this issue. Have you previously heard about the concerns surrounding palm oil? Now that you know, will you change the way you buy products? Do you know of any companies I’ve missed in my lists? Thanks for reading & sharing.