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What’s Fueling the Demand for the Palm Oil Destroying the Rainforests of Indonesia?

Health concerns and well-meaning efforts to cut GHGs, it turns out

Today Rainforest Action Network released an emotional video that reveals the horrible costs of our growing appetite for palm oil. The two-minute film shows that industrial palm plantations in Indonesia are driving to extinction the last populations of orangutans, a great ape that possesses a sentience like few other animals (you can watch the video below). The video is a follow-up to a report the group put out last month about “Conflict Palm Oil” and the latest salvo in its campaign to force major food brands to reform the palm oil industry.

photo of a devastated tropical landscape by Rainforest Action Network, on FlickrForest cleared in preparation for oil palms.

When I read the report last month, a few facts jumped out – numbers that totally surprised me, even though I have been aware of palm oil’s serious environmental impacts for several years now. First, there’s this: “In less than two decades palm oil production has nearly quadrupled to 55 million metric tons and surpassed soybeans to become the world’s most widely traded and used edible vegetable oil.” And also this: “Consumption of palm oil has been growing rapidly in the United States, increasing nearly sixfold since 2000 to reach 1.25 million metric tons in 2012.”

All of which begs the obvious question: Why is palm oil use skyrocketing?

The answer, as always, is complicated. There are a number of explanations. The most important is the fact that palm oil is cheap to produce and is 10 times more productive on a per acre basis than its closest competitor, soy oil. And why is it so cheap? In part because the industrial palm oil producers have been able to externalize the costs of production by disregarding environmental and human rights standards. “The government in Indonesia gave away vast amounts of land to palm plantations, at the expense of people who live there,” RAN spokesperson Laurel Sutherlin told me. (Full disclosure: my partner, Nell Greenberg, is RAN’s communications director.) “They put in these massive, industrial scale plantations, and were able to make the price bottom out.”

The other answer–which always pops up in discussions of international commodities these days – is India and China. Those two nations are by far the biggest consumers of palm, which they use in processed foods and also as a cooking oil.

The story gets interesting when you start to look at why palm oil consumption is exploding in the United States and the European Union. It turns out that the abuses associated with conflict palm oil are the unanticipated blowback from efforts to avoid things we don’t like – petroleum, GMO foods, and transfats.

The demise of the orangutans is yet another example of how the road to hell can be paved with good intentions.

To understand the story, remember this year: 2003. That was when the US FDA published a rule announcing that, beginning in 2006, all nutrition labels on food products would have to include the amount of trans fatty acids. Also in 2003, an EU directive went into effect that mandated that by 2010 member countries would have to replace 5.75 percent of all transportation fuels with biofuels.

These were progressive, well-intentioned policies. The FDA rule was meant to raise consumer awareness about the dangers of eating too much transfats–a (bad) cholesterol-forming substance that increases the risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Mostly the policy has worked. Food companies, fearful of having the dreaded transfats on their nutritional labels, switched to palm oil. As NPR puts it, the campaign to get transfats “out of the food supply has been pretty successful.” (For the record, palm oil is a saturated fat, and comes with its own health concerns.)

The EU biofuel mandate was intended to help reduce the continent’s greenhouse gas emissions – another worthy goal. EU nations have struggled to hit the mandated biofuel usage – and maybe that’s for the best. Because, as we now know, the land use changes sometimes connected with biofuels production – you know, things like burning ancient peat forests to create monocrop plantations – means that biofuels can have higher greenhouse gas emissions than old fashioned petroleum fuels. Just last month the European Parliament voted to limit the use of crop-based biofuels from sources like soy and palm.

But the Europeans will still be importing plenty of palm oil. That’s because EU food companies also use it as a processed food additive – not as a substitute for transfats, necessarily, but because it’s not genetically engineered. European eaters are famously distrustful of GMOs, and so food companies there (which have to disclose GM ingredients) go to great lengths to keep it out of their products. At first, European food companies used non-GM soy oil, but then switched to GMO-free palm oil due to its low price. Interestingly, according to one report I found online, an expected GM labeling law in India could further increase that nation’s demand for palm oil.

I’ll admit, all of this leaves me rather discouraged. Don’t want to use the oil companies’ products? Well, biofuels are sometimes just as bad. Don’t want to eat GMOs? Then you’ll end up with an orangutan paw in your crackers. The good becomes the enemy of the perfect.

So what’s a committed environmental citizen to do? Even if you know you might not always make it there, keep striving for the perfect: skip the processed food snack aisle, stick to your bus and bike, and do your best to avoid that conflict palm oil.

Jason MarkJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is the Editor in Chief of SIERRA, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, and the author of Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man. From 2007 to 2015 he was the Editor of Earth Island Journal.

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funny written article. the unintended consequences of regulating… how about they produce palm oil in a sustainable fashion and respectful of local population and human rights? the problem is not the conversion away from old economy polluting resources itself but the production methods adopted by the palm oil companies. Not only are they not accountable for the real costs of production they squeeze the freakin lemon to save every last penny. So instead of saving 35% or whatever by using palm oil let them save freakin 25% or 20%. It’s unacceptable companies can act like this in total impunity. Bunch of criminals on so many levels. Their day will come… hopefully not too late. And if you’re an officer of a palm oil company reading this ur a freakin douchebag criminal and you know it. your day of judgement will come. Might as well include the freakin douchebags from the Indonesian government who authorized this and gave them the land. on behalf of orangutans everywhere: fk u all!!

By tony scrissi on Tue, January 05, 2016 at 9:22 pm

Tell me and people all around using this email more about the demand for the Palm oil

By Logan on Thu, September 03, 2015 at 9:39 pm

hi i am in year 8 in australia and i am doing an assignment on palm oil. I was wondering if you could email me a simple explanation of why there is such a growing demand for palm oil? I am going really well in geography this year, so i was allowed a 5 week holiday. in this time i missed a very large amount of work and i have fund myself very lost in this assignment. IT would really also help if you could tell me a little bit about malaysia or indonisia. Thank you very much

By Rowena on Mon, August 31, 2015 at 12:57 am

Cooking oils: Best keep oil in the refrigerator

Price and health : COCONUT OIL (not high flame)

Safflower or Sunflower oils: They are high in monounsaturated fats and not as highly processed as canola. They’re good all-purpose oils when you don’t want the taste of olive oil.

If you can get your hands on organic, cold-pressed canola oil, then it won’t be as high in oxidized fats and trans fats.

Shareholders and clients must pressure our financial institutions to pressure palm oil user companies to engage with Wilmar and other palm
oil companies to demand that they avoid conversion of forests and peatlands, that they respect local laws and customary rights, and that they promote best-practices in transparency and tracing of social and environmental impacts in their supply chains. If, though principled engagement with the companies, these banks and investors cannot have a significant impact, they should consider divestment as the only responsible choice. By cutting off financial flows to the most destructive companies, we can begin to stem the tide of forest destruction caused by palm oil”

For example: (Bank
of America and Citigroup) and the three largest pension funds in North America (TIAA-CREF, CalPERS,
and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board)

By JEnnifer on Sun, April 13, 2014 at 3:57 am

“So what’s a committed environmental citizen to do?” In addition to shopping better, how about joining and volunteering time with one of the many grassroots campaigns across the country working to stop conflict palm oil! RAN, Greenpeace, and many other major environmental organizations have made this issue a top priority. Across the state of Michigan, the Forest Heroes campaign is challenging Kellogg’s, a Michigan company, to end its partnership with Wilmar International, the world’s largest trader of palm oil that has been ranked the least sustainable company on the planet two years in a row! Learn more here:

Palm oil plantations are pushing endangered species to the brink of extinction, destroying the home of indigenous peoples, and are a major driver of global warming. Tropical deforestation contributes more climate pollution than all of the world’s transportation combined. Indonesia has become the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter, behind only the US and China. About 80% of those emissions come from rainforest destruction, and half of the deforestation there is to make way for palm oil.

The scale and urgency of addressing “conflict palm oil” requires much more than better shopping practices. It demands real engagement from citizens at the grassroots level to stand up to companies and corrupt governments that are profiting from rainforest destruction without a second thought. By all means, “strive for the perfect” shopping basket, by the “committed environmental citizen” should know that we need much more than that.

By Ben Cushing on Thu, October 10, 2013 at 9:21 am

I wonder, is there a “safe” palm oil that we, the consumers, can encourage food companies to use, instead of conflict palm oil?

If not, what is the best substitute?

By kurt in la on Wed, October 09, 2013 at 5:41 pm

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