October 30, 2013 — Recently, on a quest to eat less dairy, I 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 — a gigantic King Soopers — and 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 — even though Leonardo DiCaprio has taken up the cause, posting about palm oil on Twitter and Facebook, 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 — and then sells that oil to major U.S. brands.
Indonesia and Malaysia together produce 85 percent of the global palm oil supply — 50 million tons per year between them — 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, while the amount of land planted with oil palms there has risen almost 300 percent since 2000. Today, nearly 25 million acres across Indonesia are planted with oil palms. By 2020, that number is expected to rise to 50 million acres, or 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; in Europe, it’s feedstock for biofuel (a particularly egregious example of bad policy-making). In the U.S., it’s an ingredient not just in foods and health and beauty products, but in the ingredients that make up those products — vitamin A palmitate, sodium laurel sulfate, stearic acid. That means palm oil is often absent from the label, leaving consumers in the dark about what they’re actually buying and its impact.
If orangutans die out, it will be almost single-handedly due to global demand for palm oil.
But shop your local market — the corner bodega, the hulking Safeway, the gleaming Whole Foods — and chances are you won’t make it more than a few feet without encountering palm oil. Margarine, peanut butter, crackers, cookies, ice cream, lipstick, toothpaste, soap, all that candy we consume on Halloween: It’s so pervasive in the products we put in and on our bodies that it’s virtually impossible to avoid it, no matter how hard we might try. My quest for soy milk that doesn’t contain palm oil — in the form of vitamin A palmitate — has turned up exactly one brand, Edensoy. (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 — 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 — 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 — and the fact that it seems to have insinuated itself into our daily lives largely unnoticed — may be exactly what keeps us from rallying against it. Unlike timber or tuna, palm oil is so dispersed and hidden it would be like trying to boycott water molecules. Sure, in a few cases demands by shareholder groups have led companies — Dunkin’ Donuts, for instance — to switch to sustainably harvested palm oil. The sustainable designation is far from pristine, though: The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an industry group that certifies certain oil as “green,” 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 — often grown in Colombia, the world’s fourth-biggest producer. But that country’s palm oil producers, which are rapidly expanding their output, have been accused of laundering drug money, pushing peasants off their land and shooting at locals. It’s not exactly encouraging.
Today, most consumers remain unaware either that they’re eating palm oil or that there’s anything wrong with it. A recent campaign by talk show host Dr. Oz even encouraged consumers to buy more palm oil, touting its health benefits. Palm oil may be the ultimate icon of globalization — 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.
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 have all pledged to transition to only sustainably sourced palm oil. They need to be held to those promises — but more importantly, they need to ensure that “sustainably sourced” holds meaning. They need to 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, which tries to curb consumer demand for gruesome wildlife products like rhino horns, 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. The soaring demand, and the huge profit potential, is spreading oil palm plantations around the world. 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 — Oreos, for instance — and 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.
UPDATED 02.11.14: Combined Indonesia and Malaysia palm oil production was changed to 50 million tons per year.