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.

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