A worker shoulders palm fruits in Indonesia, one of the top palm oil providers, along with Malaysia. (Yusuf Ahmad /Reuters)
It’s lurking, unlabeled, in hundreds of household products from lip
gloss to baby formula to potato chips. While it doesn’t sound (and need
not be) nefarious, activist groups worldwide argue that the production
of palm oil is currently harming rain forests in Southeast Asia,
orangutans, and the environment.
But the American Palm Oil Council calls it “nature’s gift to the world.”
So, which is it?
Made from the flesh of fruit from oil palm trees, palm oil stepped
into the void when towering oil prices put pressure on companies
worldwide to find alternative sources for products from biofuel to
shampoo. Demand for the oil surged by an average of 2.2 million metric
tons worldwide each year between 2000 and 2009.
Although palm oil saves money, when carbon-rich peatlands in nations
such as Indonesia and Malaysia are drained and turned into palm oil
groves, the environmental impacts are enormous, says a 2009 United
Nations Environment Program report.
The report notes that because of the additional release of carbon
sequestered in peatland as a result of some forms of palm oil farming,
its combustion “generates 3 to 9 times the amount of CO2 produced by
burning coal.” The upshot? A carbon debt “requiring 420 years of
biofuel production to repay.”
Another loser in increased palm oil production is the orangutan,
which lives exclusively in the palm oil meccas of Borneo and Sumatra
and inhabits lowland areas near rivers that are also favored for palm
oil plantations. Zoos Victoria in Australia estimates that palm oil
development causes the deaths of up to 50 orangutans per week.
To help prevent loss of orangutan habitat and the adverse
environmental effects of most current palm oil production,
environmental groups, palm oil producers, and companies that use the
oil have banded together to form the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
(RSPO). Its goal: to advance the production and use of sustainable palm
This may be the start of a solution, but “it’s not going far
enough,” said Leila Salazar-Lopez, rain forest agribusiness campaign
director for the Rainforest Action Network, during a panel on palm oil
policy in Boston. “We applaud companies that are members of the RSPO
but we need further action.”
Companies can buy sustainable credits to help support farmers who
produce ecofriendly palm oil, but the small supply so far makes this
unfeasible on a large scale, says Jeffrey Hollender, executive chairman
of Seventh Generation, which makes environmentally friendly household
products. As a result, sustainable palm oil is unavailable as a pure
product. Instead, it’s mixed with regular palm oil. Consumers have no
way of knowing how the palm oil in products they buy was produced.
Solid dialogue between the palm oil industry and environmental
activists is important and has been aided by the existence of the RSPO,
says Serge Wich, a researcher at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, a
conservation group. “I think that we need to have a constructive
dialogue with the palm oil industry,” he says. “If we’re going to say
the palm oil industry is the problem, and we’re not going to provide
constructive solutions, then that’s not going to help.”
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