Palm Oil: Invisible Ingredient, Severe Consequences

Palm Oil: Invisible Ingredient, Severe Consequences

In recent months, we’ve received a slew of emails asking that we start labelling products as “palm-oil free.” I will admit, until these emails started rolling in, I hadn’t ever sought out palm-oil free products – now having researched the industry, I’m realizing this is a bit of an embarrassing omission.

Avoiding palm oil is no easy task; it’s found in a staggering array of products. Odds are, in the last few days you’ve eaten it, rubbed it into your skin, fed it to your pet. And while it’s seemingly everywhere, detecting it, isn’t as simple as you’d expect.

Just look up the ingredients on a tub of margarine, loaf of bread or box of cookies. Odds are “palm oil” won’t be listed. But it’s likely there, veiled by the allusive title “vegetable oil.”

Though it might be hard to detect in the products in your pantry and fridge, there’s nothing subtle about its devastating impact 10,000 miles away. Palm oil is responsible for some of the most destructive deforestation of our time.

At a rate incomprehensible here in the West, the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia are being replaced with palm plantations. Thirty square miles (an area larger than Manhattan) are being felled daily. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, if the current rate of palm-production maintains, a staggering 98 percent of Indonesia’s forests will be destroyed by 2022.

These rainforests, once among the most biodiverse on earth, are rapidly being transformed into biological deserts. When vast blocks of palms are planted in straight lines, stretching mile after mile, 90 percent of wildlife disappears.

The Sumatran rhino (the smallest and hairiest in the world), the Sumatran tiger (the world’s smallest tiger), and the tree-jumping clouded leopard are all in decline. Orangutans are also disappearing; between 2004 and 2008, populations fell by 10 percent in Borneo and 14 percent on Sumatra, leaving fewer than 55,000 total. As the author Serge Wich warns that “unless extraordinary efforts are made soon, [the orangutan] could become the first great-ape species to go extinct.”

The disappearing fruit trees, shrinking hunting grounds, and increasingly polluted rivers are also having a severe impact on the lives of native tribes who have called these forests home for generations.

And the impacts are not just isolated to local populations and species; the CO2 emissions caused by deforestation are forever altering our world. In 2010 alone, land clearance in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo, emitted CO2 equivalent to 28 million cars. A new study in Nature Climate Change projects that by 2020, palm oil plantations will emit over 558 million metric tons of CO2, more than all the emissions from fossil fuels burned in Canada.

All of this, for what? To produce cheap oil - cheaper than soy, rapeseed or sunflower. Around the world we’re demanding more and more of the stuff. It’s truly mind blowing when we consider the facts – we’re destroying rainforests, driving rare animal species to extinction, forcing native populations to dramatically change their way of life, and producing more and more CO2 for cheap margarine. My head hurts just thinking about it.

There is a small glimmer of hope that this can be turned around. Just last year, Rainforest Foundation Norway launched a campaign to reduce Norwegian palm oil consumption, mainly through raising awareness of its devastating impacts. Producers were asked to disclose details about their use of palm oil, and whether the oil came from sustainable sources. Concealing palm as vegetable oil was no longer permitted (Norwegian law requires that companies provide any information deemed relevant for environmental concerns).

Since the campaign launched, Norway’s palm oil consumption has dropped by 64 percent... in just one year.

It goes to show that the UN’s dire prediction that 98 percent of Indonesia’s forests will be gone in a decade does not need to be an inevitability. We can still change this picture, and increasing transparency will be a significant part of the solution.

Here an EO, we know we have a small role to play by increasing transparency in the products we sell. We will add a palm-oil free identifier to our products by the year’s end and will encourage others to do the same. As we’ve seen in the case of Norway, the more we can do to increase the visibility of palm oil, the greater the chances that we can slow demand around the world.

Thanks to all of you who told us how important this is to you.

October 16, 2012