Palm Oil, Rainforests, Species Loss, and You.

A worker in a palm oil plantation in Borneo. PT.Hampalit Jaya.

Palm oil is a increasingly popular vegetable oil which is used in a wide variety of processed foods. Demand for palm oil in the U.S. has skyrocketed since 2006, when then-new labeling guidelines for trans fats led food companies to seek out a healthier replacement. Palm oil is a product of the oil palm, which is generally planted in high rainfall equatorial areas; this puts palm oil production in direct competition with efforts to protect the remnants of the world’s rainforests, which grow in similar latitudes as the oil palm.

A report recently released by the Rainforest Action Network examines the highly damaging effects palm oil production can have on the environment at local and global scales, along with human rights abuses associated with palm oil production. Unsustainably planted palm oil plantations reduce biodiversity and currently threaten several endangered species, such as the Orangutan and Sumatran Tiger. The palm oil industry’s standards for sustainability do little to protect against rainforest loss, carbon emissions, or the deliberate burning of hundreds of thousands of acres of forest.

Several organizations are attempting to address the issue of unsustainable palm oil production. Greenpeace is calling on palm oil producers, suppliers, and end users to clean up their acts. The Union of Concerned Scientists has released a report detailing sustainable  production practices and substitutes for palm oil. The Rainforest Action Network launched their Snack Food 20 campaign last week to pressure 20 of the largest food companies to make sure any palm oil in their products is sustainably produced. Locally, Forest Heroes is pressuring Kellogg’s to either cut ties with Wilmar International, an asian agribusiness giant that Newsweek has twice ranked the least sustainable company in the world, or leverage their relationship with Wilmar to force the palm oil giant to change its practices.

You can make a difference by supporting the above mentioned organizations and their initiatives. You can also send a message as a consumer, by making informed buying choices, reading ingredient labels, and voting with your wallet.  Reducing demand for unsustainably produced palm oil sends a message to the companies that use it in their products. Preventing rainforest destruction, the loss of endangered species, and climate-altering carbon emissions is possible, and can be as simple as taking a stand; the 2011 decision by the Girl Scouts of America to make the palm oil in their famous cookies more sustainable was due in large part to the persistent efforts of two Girl Scouts, who began campaigning for the change at age 11.

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