Halloween is right around the corner, which means lots of candies and chocolates for
me to eat trick-or-treaters. You’re probably familiar with the idea that some ingredients in our food might not be healthy for humans. But what if some ingredients pose a danger to animals?
Palm Oil – Oil Palm…What?
I’m going to give you a quick lingo lesson to make this a little easier to digest. Two terms you’ll read are “oil palm” and “palm oil”. Seems like they should mean the same thing, right? For the sake of discussion, we’ll say that “oil palm” is referring to the African oil palm tree, and “palm oil” is referring to the actual oil produced from the fruit of this tree. Lingo lesson over. You passed.
Palm oil is in everything. Ok, it’s not in everything, but the oil that comes from the fruit of the African oil palm has made its way into a staggering amount of products. You can find palm oil in products such as candy, cosmetics, soap, packaged food, and it is often used as cooking oil across the world.
There’s a good chance that you’ve already come in contact with palm oil today. The oil palm grows exceedingly well in tropical climates like Malaysia and Indonesia which are in Southeast Asia. This palm is so efficient that 1 acre of oil palm trees can produce more oil than 4 acres of other similar vegetable oils.
Sounds great. What’s the catch?
Here’s where we’re at: 1) Grows great in tropical climates, 2) Useful in everything from food to cosmetics, and 3) Its yield is so high that no other oil producing plant even comes close to matching it. Seems like a miracle crop, right? Unfortunately, this miracle has been quiet a nightmare for wildlife in areas growing oil palms. Because of its benefits, the global demand for palm oil has caused devastating levels of deforestation in order to clear land for new palm oil plantations. These plantations are made by clear-cutting or burning huge amounts of forest, running off (and sometimes, killing) the animals, and planting one species of tree – oil palms. Make no mistake, these plantations have one purpose and it is to produce as much palm oil as possible, in the shortest amount of time. Replacing large areas of rainforest with palm oil plantations reduces the habitat of orangutans and creates significant consequences for animals that rely on this sensitive ecosystem for survival.
Here’s why you should care:
Some of the products that you consume every day have an ingredient that’s obtained by taking away the homes of animals. There’s a very high probability that something you ate today came from an area that used to host wildlife like orangutans, and now exists only as a plantation for palm oil. Take a minute and let that sink in. Orangutans, tigers, pygmy elephants, and rhinos suffer immensely from habitat loss created from establishing oil palm plantations. Without a change, the future of both the animals and the forest is grim.
It’s not all bad news.
When I was first learning about palm oil, I felt guilty that I’d been buying all this palm oil stuff and didn’t even know what it was. If this is all new to you, don’t fret. Take comfort in the fact that many people don’t know about this issue, but now you do, and you can be a hero for change.
If you really look at it, palm oil isn’t the problem. The issues stem from the people and processes that go into its production. That doesn’t mean that we should stop buying anything with palm oil in it. Although boycotting seems like an easy fix, it’s unrealistic to think that the world would stop using the most efficient oil producing plant ever discovered. Oil palms are here to stay, and rightly so. Instead of boycotting, we should support changes to the industry that protect wildlife and hold producers accountable.
There are already a growing number of people and companies who are working to harvest palm oil in ways that reduce impacts on the environment. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a group that is looking to transform palm oil production by certifying companies and people who follow special guidelines that protect wildlife. These certifications will help consumers become better informed on what they’re buying. We’ll be able to tell which companies have made changes and want to source their palm oil from suppliers that are operating sustainably.
Here’s what I’m asking you to do: spend just 5 minutes to read more about palm oil. Take five small minutes while you’re sipping coffee or playing on your phone and learn something that you didn’t know before.
Need a place to start? Here’s a jumping off point:
– Association of Zoos and Aquariums – Palm Oil Position Statement
– Starbucks and Sustainable Palm Oil
– Nestle’s Commitment to Traceable Sustainable Palm Oil
– Dunkin’ Donuts Commits to 100% Sustainable Palm Oil by 2016
– Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
Also, visit the Houston Zoo to learn more about this issue. During Zoo Boo, we are offering candy made with sustainable (zero-deforestation) palm oil. Swing by your favorite animal’s habitat and see how we are working to save animals in the wild!