MEDAN, Indonesia — You may have heard this before: Palm oil is bad. Greenpeace and its allies have been condemning farmed palm's impact on the environment for years.
But did you know that you’re a big part of the problem? That’s right, YOU. And the products that you buy — so many of them, in fact, that we think you’ll be amazed.
Confused? Angry? Feeling defensive? Want to know more? Here’s a primer on the problem, and what you can do to stop it.
1. What exactly is palm oil?
Glad you asked. It’s a vegetable oil that comes from the seeds and pulp of oil palm fruit.
Here’s a big part of the problem: 90 percent of the world’s oil palm trees are cultivated in Indonesian and Malaysian plantations, but they’re not even native to that region. They originally come from West Africa, and were imported to Southeast Asia because the climate there is ideal for fruit production.
The first plantation was established in Malaysia only about a century ago. Since then, millions of acres of forest have been razed to make space for the imported trees. These days global consumption of palm oil is estimated at over 50 million tons per year.
2. What products is it in?
Really, it almost might be easier to ask what products it is NOT in.
Grab the snack bag on your desk and check the ingredients; you’ll probably find palm oil. You might not notice it at first, because palm oil goes by many, many names (over 200, listed here if you’re interested).
Palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the world. It’s the cheapest to produce, and it’s everywhere: in your food (chips, cereals, margarine, mayonnaise, chocolate, ice-cream, baked goods — basically, most processed foods), your cosmetics (soap, shampoo, moisturizers, lipsticks), your detergents, your fuel, and so on.
3. How is it destroying the rainforest?
The warm, humid climate in Indonesia and Malaysia that’s so perfect for palm oil trees is also where the rainforest just happens to grow.
So basically, either the rainforest or the palm oil trees had to go. And the one that earns billions of dollars in revenue won. Go figure.
Greenpeace says that from 2009 to 2011, the palm oil sector was the single largest driver of deforestation in Indonesia. The area covered by palm oil plantations in Indonesia has grown by 600 percent since 1990. In 2013 these massive monocultures occupied some twenty million acres of land — an area about three times the size of Massachusetts. Yes, three Bay States, just to grow an ingredient in your snacks and stuff.
And it’s getting worse. Much worse. WWF, the World Wildlife Fund, says the equivalent of 300 soccer fields' worth of rainforest are destroyed each hour to make way for palm oil production.
Of course, destruction of the rainforest is also a main cause of climate change. Clearing space and preparing it for plantations, by burning the forest and draining the ground, releases massive amounts of greenhouse gases.
Remember the wild jungles of Borneo? Here's what they look like now. Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images
4. How is it killing the orangutans?
Well, these orange, eerily human-like creatures live exclusively in the rainforests of Malaysia and Indonesia. So rainforest destruction means there’s nowhere for them to live.
The number of orangutans remaining is estimated to be just over 60,000 individuals, and declining fast. The Orangutan project says that the orangutan population has decreased by approximately 50 percent in the wild during the past decade.
Meanwhile, 80 percent of orangutan habitat has been altered or lost due to human activities, including rainforest destruction for palm oil plantations. Scientists say that clearing a forest area to make space for an industrial palm oil plantation results in the death or displacement of some 95 percent of the orangutans who originally lived there.
Orangutans are also sometimes directly targeted by plantation owners, who see them as pests (see the photo at the top of this story). Apparently no one has figured out how to explain to orangutans that they should stay away from the young palm leaves — which are just as delicious to them as your snacks are to you.
When they’re “lucky” they only get shot with airg un pellets.
But there have also been several reports of palm tree owners putting a bounty on orangutans’ heads. Sometimes they get knocked off for as little as $10.
5. What about other endangered animals, like, let’s say, tigers, rhinos and elephants?
You’re right, they’re not doing all that well either. Sumatran rhinos, elephants and tigers are considered “critically endangered” species. The WWF says they could disappear completely in the coming decades if nothing is done to stop the destruction of their habitat.
They’re also sometimes seen as pests by plantation owners. Last February, seven critically endangered Sumatran elephants were found dead of suspected poisoning.
6. Wow, this is depressing. And I feel kinda guilty. What can I do?
You can follow (or support) environmental groups to know who the bad guys are. Greenpeace has been carrying out campaigns against big companies, the WWF chose to name and shame top buyers, and the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) went after the US snack industry.
In the past, RAN also targeted those tasty cookies sold by Girl Scouts, but their leaders have since committed to exclusively using sustainable palm oil, a sign that these campaigns do have an impact.
Sustainable palm oil is definitely a step forward, but what’s behind the label is not always that clear. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a certification standard to ensure companies can continue producing palm oil without impacting the rainforest.
But a Greenpeace investigation revealed that many RSPO members are still involved in forest clearing. “RSPO, from my perspective, has been used for green-washing by companies who want to expand their plantations into the forest,” said Bustar Maitar, the head of Greenpeace's Indonesia Forest Campaign, in March.
The answer, believe many environmentalists who argue that palm oil itself isn’t the enemy, is for the industry players to once and for all break the link between palm oil production and deforestation by embracing a real “zero deforestation” policy.
“To claim to be sustainable means more than nice words. It also means being accountable and being transparent to all your stakeholders; it means being proactive and enforcing rules,” says Maitar.
Now whether big companies care enough to make this happen is a different issue.