Rainforest destruction and the palm oil industry

The food industry is getting away from trans fats and increasingly using Palm oil. It’s good news for our hearts, but not for the rainforests of Indonesia.

A major fast food chain recently trumpeted their low trans fat cooking oil by pointing out that palm oil has less than 1% trans fat content. Trans fats increase bad kinds of cholesterol, increasing the risk of coronary disease.

But the company left out mentioning a very important issue. The problem is that palm oil, now the second-most widely used edible oil after soy bean oil, is being sourced increasingly at the expense of rainforests. Oil palm acreage in Indonesia has increased by nearly 120 percent in the past 8 years and Indonesian rainforests are disappearing at a rate of more than 2 million hectares a year. Dangerous herbicides and pesticides are also used liberally on these plantations, and palm oil mill effluent (POME), kills aquatic life.

On the human side of palm oil production, indigenous people’s land is being commandeered and laborers on palm plantations work under difficult and low paid conditions.

Palm oil is a pretty amazing and versatile substance. It’s used in all sorts of foods and I read somewhere that nearly 1 in 3 processed food products now contain palm oil. It’s also used in soaps, shampoo, cosmetics and detergents; can be used as a biofuel, is utilized in metal and leather trades and palm kernel meal is given to livestock as feed.

So what to do, ban it? That’s probably being a little unrealistic. After all, what would we replace it with? Whatever the replacement, that’s likely to have similar problems too – just like we’ve seen with soya bean farming in the Amazon.

The key is to establish sustainable palm oil operations that minimize the impact on the land and respect the peoples who work to produce it. The major problem is there appear to be no controls or effective management in place at present and very few model plantations that other producers can learn from. The reason for this slash and burn approach is quite simple – corporate greed.

The big western companies want their palm oil as cheap as possible. As a consumer, would you pay a couple of extra cents for a product that contains palm oil that’s been produced in an environmentally friendly fashion? I’m sure you would!

But do you think that most shareholders of these companies would feel the same way if a few cents value was cut from each of their shares of a company that was responsible in its palm oil sourcing due to increased ingredients expense? Probably not. Wall Street is still a long way from going green. Shareholders, generally speaking, just don’t care.

As consumers, what can we do about this situation? Firstly, we can eat less of heavily processed products. That’s not only good for the planet, but good for us too.

Secondly, we can become more aware and make others aware of the situation – and with that awareness, take action. If enough people start putting pressure on corporations and government to do the right thing, they will.. in the end. Hopefully the issue of Palm oil can be addressed before too much more rainforest is destroyed.

Something simple that you can do is to write to fast food chains and major food brands and ask them about their palm oil sourcing. Open the conversation with short note such as this:


I noticed your company uses Palm oil as an ingredient in X:

Could you please tell me which country the Palm oil you use is sourced from; i.e. where the Palm oil is harvested?

If it’s in whole or in part from Indonesia, I’m concerned that it’s being sourced at the expense of rainforests as oil palm acreage in Indonesia has increased dramatically in recent years.

I’d like to know what controls your company has in place to ensure that the palm oil it purchases is being produced in an environmentally responsible manner. As a  consumer who is acutely concerned about the environment, it’s important to me that the companies I purchase from operate in a sustainable and earth friendly way as much as possible.

Don’t believe any spin they give you about being “responsible” unless they can prove it beyond a doubt.

If you do get a bunch of doublespeak and gloss, let them know that unless they become more environmentally responsible in their practices, you’ll cease buying their products and let others know why. Again, one or two complaints won’t move them at all and you’re liable to only get a standard canned responses in return; but if enough people become concerned.. well, looked what’s happening regarding the topic of global warming.

While shareholders weild a huge amount of power and may not give a damn about the planet, if nobody’s buying the company’s products, even they’ll see the need to green up in order to continue getting their “green”.