Monday, June 02, 2008

Keeping Household Palm Oil-Free No Easy Task

After watching Planet Earth on Sunday, I did some more research on Palm Oil production. In a nutshell: the production process is very bad for the environment (i.e. tearing down rain forests, the most ecologically diverse systems on Earth, and planting mono-forests - just rows and rows of palm plants.)

Surprisingly, (well, depending on how optimistic i am about the media at the moment) there are very few articles in the news. I eventually found this, and I think its a great summary.

From now on, I am going to be more conscious of what products I use contain palm oil.

Keeping Household Palm Oil-Free No Easy Task


May 28, 2008

While showering a few weeks ago, I realized I had run out of conditioner. So I grabbed my wife's bottle — Clairol Herbal Essences Rainforest Flowers, "with essences of nourishing palm."

The label caught me slightly by surprise. As an environmental journalist, I've been writing about the ecologically destructive effect of palm oil for some time.

Whether it's used as an additive in soap, cosmetics or food, or processed into a biofuel, palm oil is one of the worst culprits in the climate crisis. Most of it comes from the disappearing, ultra-carbon-rich rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, of which 25,000 square miles have been cleared and burned to make way for palm oil plantations.

That burning releases enough carbon dioxide into the air to rank Indonesia as the No. 3 such polluter in the world. It also destroys the last remaining habitat for orangutans, Sumatran rhinos, tigers and other endangered wildlife.

I started to inspect other items on our shelves. Despite our efforts to keep green, we had several products containing palm oil: Burt's Bees soap, chocolate truffles from Trader Joe's, Kashi breakfast bars, Whole Foods water crackers and many others.

Probably the worst offenders were Entenmann's chocolate-covered doughnuts, which list palm oil as the first ingredient — and palm kernel oil as the second. Lots of other products, some of them marketed as "green," contain this rhino-killer too: Oreos, Chewy Chips Ahoy!, Orville Redenbacher's popcorn, Hershey's Kisses "Hugs," Twix and many other processed foods. Even some Girl Scout cookies have it.

The great tragedy of all this palm oil use (about 30 million tons globally every year) is that it's so easily replaced by healthier vegetable oils, such as canola, that come from significantly less-ecologically sensitive areas.

Unfortunately, most of the food and cosmetics conglomerates are more interested in covering up the environmental destruction than replacing the problem ingredient. Kellogg's, Kraft Foods, Unilever, Nestle, Procter & Gamble and others (including the Girl Scouts) assure the public that such environmental concerns don't apply to them because they (or their suppliers) are members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an industry group that sets guidelines on growing and selling palm oil.

Unfortunately, as a recent Greenpeace report revealed, the Roundtable's standards are almost meaningless because they don't include inspections of the palm oil tree plantations. The Roundtable plans to address this problem in the next few months by certifying a small amount of oil that it says has been verifiably produced according to some sustainable standards. But even Roundtable Vice President Darrel Webber acknowledges that the process "isn't perfect," in part because liquid oils are easy to mix and nearly impossible to track.

So how can we keep dead orangutans out of our hair, out of our food and out of our gas tanks? Consumers should scan ingredient labels for palm oil and palm kernel oil (and derivatives such as palmitic acid) and choose brands that don't contain them. Wall Street should divest from this ecologically subprime market, not only because it's the right thing to do but because its high carbon footprint means that palm oil producers and buyers are likely to be penalized in any scheme to reduce global warming.

But governments must act too. The European Union, for instance, is considering a ban on palm oil and other tropical biofuels. Any ban must extend to food and cosmetics as well.

That might slightly inconvenience the food and cosmetics companies, but at least we'll know that no orangutans died to make our Thin Mints.

1 comment:

  1. If environment is the issue, the northen countries should consider paying tropical for the opportunity cost to keep their rainforest and production of oxygen.