It’s going to take an all-out marketing attack to finally raise awareness enough to curb demand for unsustainable palm oil.
Back in 2013 on Ensia, Hillary Rosner @hillaryrosner , reported on a quest to eat less dairy. She went in search of a butter alternative. (Misguided, I realize. Everything tastes better with butter.) I scoured the “things to spread on toast” aisles of my local supermarket. It’s a gigantic King Soopers. As well as the nearby Whole Foods. I read the ingredients of every single dairy-free butter-type substance. And I was pretty amazed at what I found: Every last one contained palm oil.
I’ve written about palm oil over the years (in the New York Times, Mother Jones and Newsweek, among others), and many other journalists have covered the topic. Yet for some reason, despite the stark reality of palm oil’s impacts, we’re consuming ever more of it. The facts never seem to stick, or to reach enough people. I mean even though Leonardo DiCaprio has taken up the cause. He is always posting about palm oil on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. As well as donating $1 million to World Wildlife Fund and signing his name to save-the-rain forest missives.
World markets are ravenous for palm oil, and demand shows no sign of waning
Production doubled in the 2000s and is expected to double again by the end of this decade.
The lack of traction is incredibly frustrating, because palm oil is one of the planet’s most destructive ingredients. It is largely responsible for the massive deforestation of Borneo. As companies slash, burn and bulldoze rain forest to plant uniform rows of oil palm trees, they’re decimating the island’s legendary biodiversity, driving up greenhouse gas emissions and destroying the livelihoods of local subsistence farmers. On Sumatra, according to a new report from Greenpeace, Wilmar, a major palm oil supplier, buys from companies that are illegally clearing endangered tiger habitat. Then it sells that oil to major U.S. brands.
So Indonesia and Malaysia together produces 85 percent of the global palm oil supply. That’s 55 million tons between them. Most noteworthy, mostly on land that was thriving rain forest not long ago. In Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), 90 percent of oil palms planted since 1990 were grown on newly cleared forests. Now while the amount of land planted with oil palms there has risen almost 300 percent since 2000.
Nearly 25 million acres across Indonesia are planted with oil palms
By 2020, that number is expected to rise to 50 million acres. That’s more than 10 percent of the country’s land.
World markets are ravenous for palm oil, and demand shows no sign of waning. Production doubled in the 2000s and is expected to double again by the end of this decade. In Asia, it’s used for cooking. Also and in Europe, it’s feedstock for biofuel (a particularly egregious example of bad policy-making). Finally and in the U.S., it’s an ingredient not just in foods and health and beauty products. However it’s in the ingredients that make up those products. So vitamin A palmitate, sodium laurel sulfate, stearic acid. That means palm oil is often absent from the label. Thereby leaving consumers in the dark about what they’re actually buying and its impact.
If orangutans die out, like the one reported shot 74 times in the N.Y. TIMES recently. So it will be almost single-handedly due to global demand for palm oil.
But as EcoWatch reports, shop your local market. We cook with it. We bathe with it. We use it for mood lighting. Palm oil is an ingredient in processed foods, cosmetics, hygiene products, biofuels and candles; experts estimate it’s found in 50 percent of the items on grocery store shelves. Inexpensive to produce, palm oil contains no trans fats, and has a high melting point, making it versatile and easy to spread. The result: increasing demand. In 1996, global production totaled 16 million metric tons. By 2017, it was 60.7 million.
But there’s a problem. Palm oil may not cost much to produce, but it exacts a high price on the environment. And thanks to this often-invisible ingredient’s complex international supply chain. So therefore efforts to reduce that impact are proving challenging.
Because the corner bodega, the hulking Safeway, the gleaming Whole Foods. I mean the chances are you won’t make it far without encountering palm oil. In addition, margarine, peanut butter, crackers, cookies, ice cream, lipstick. As well as toothpaste, soap, all that candy we consume on Halloween. I mean it’s so pervasive in the products we put in and on our bodies.
Most noteworthy, it’s virtually impossible to avoid it. So no matter how hard we might try. My quest for soy milk that doesn’t contain palm oil. Especially in the form of vitamin A palmitate. I mean it has turned up exactly one brand, Edensoy. (More over it’s made by Eden Foods, the organic foods company that notoriously sued the government to exempt it from covering contraception for its employees. But that’s another story.)
Palm oil may be the ultimate icon of globalization. It’s an ingredient directly responsible for some of the world’s most pressing environmental problems that has nonetheless permeated our lives so stealthily we barely noticed.
The race to plant more oil palm trees is driving orangutans to the brink of extinction. If orangutans die out, it will be almost single-handedly due to global demand for palm oil. There is perhaps no animal more charismatic than an orangutan. For I’ve been to Kalimantan and met scores of them at a rehabilitation center. They’re the perfect poster children for a PR onslaught. Why, then, does the issue never gain traction with the public?
Palm oil’s omnipresence
First of all, the fact that it seems to have insinuated itself into our daily lives largely unnoticed. For it may be exactly be what keeps us from rallying against it. Unlike timber or tuna, palm oil is so dispersed. It’s so hidden in our foods. Sure, in a few cases demands by shareholder groups have led companies. Dunkin’ Donuts, for instance switched to sustainably harvested palm oil.
However, the sustainable designation is far from pristine, though. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an industry group that certifies certain oil as “green”. It is routinely criticized for letting its members get away with destructive practices. And meanwhile, supposedly eco-conscious brands such as Newman’s Own and Whole Foods continue to use palm oil in scores of products. They claim they only buy from sustainable sources. More often grown in Colombia. For they are the world’s fourth-biggest producer. But that country’s palm oil producers are rapidly expanding their output. They have been accused of laundering drug money. Also pushing peasants off their land. As well as shooting at locals. In conclusion, it’s not exactly encouraging.
Today, most consumers remain unaware either that they’re eating palm oil. Furthermore that there’s anything wrong with it. Even talk show host Dr. Oz even encouraged consumers to buy more palm oil. Thereby touting its health benefits. Palm oil may be the ultimate icon of globalization. It’s an ingredient directly responsible for some of the world’s most pressing environmental problems. All that has nonetheless permeated our lives so stealthily we barely noticed.
So what can we do? The answer is, of course, protect standing forest. But how?
Any solution will need to come from the demand side, because it’s clear that suppliers are going to keep clearing forests until consumers force them to stop. Working with large-scale buyers of palm oil is a good place to start. Nestlé, Unilever and Wal-Mart. They have all pledged to transition to only sustainably sourced palm oil. Also, they need to be held to those promises. More noteworthy, they need to ensure that “sustainably sourced” holds meaning. As well as, insist on truly sustainable oil, deforestation-free.
To keep the pressure on these corporations, the message needs to reach a broad base of consumers. And that will require an all-out marketing attack. Perhaps a group like WildAid. They try to curb consumer demand for gruesome wildlife products like rhino horns. It could partner with a few large conservation organizations and celebrities like DiCaprio to go into battle. This means going beyond sending email messages preaching to the choir. I’m talking about posters in airports, commercials on TV.
If we don’t act soon, it will be too late. Because the soaring demand, and the huge profit potential. It is spreading oil palm plantations around the world. So the latest battleground is central Africa, where old-growth forests in Gabon and Cameroon are on the chopping block.
Unlike many of the things we consume, which can have indirect ecological consequences, palm oil’s effects are direct. To stop the destruction we need to slow demand, in large part by making consumers aware of the clear link between the seemingly innocuous products we purchase. For example Cinnabon and the Oreos for instance. As well as the environmental disaster they’re causing.
Then there’s another, more blunt solution: Buy the forest. It’s what the conservation organization Orangutan Outreach is trying to do, joining forces with activists and deep-pocketed donors. “We want to amass enough wealth,” says Richard Zimmerman, who runs the group, “to acquire concessions that are hundreds of thousands of hectares and protect them.” It’s going to cost a lot more than a box of Newman-O’s. “We’re looking for a Doug Tompkins for Borneo,” Zimmerman says.