Thanks to the glut of candy that appears on the shelves of every large retail chain this time of year, there is no better time than now to discuss the problem of palm oil. Palm oil, like corn syrup, has become a bit of a dirty word and coincidentally, both tend to pop up regularly in our Halloween candy. The real problem of palm oil is in the production. We simply produce too much of it and in a manner that is completely unsustainable. Every acre of cultivated oil palms occupies land that used to be covered by tropical rainforest. Rapid and ongoing deforestation for the sake of palm oil production continues to devastate populations of unique wildlife. The cost of our ravenous palm oil consumption comes in the form of disappearing orangutans, rhinos, tigers, and elephants.
Vegetable oils of all kinds have long been integral to human existence. People all across the globe use vegetable oils in cooking. Whether we’re talking about deep-frying some extra crispy chicken or sautéing a wok full of shrimp and veggies, vegetable oils are a key ingredient. Less famously, it turns out that vegetable oils are useful in the formulation of non-edibles as well. Many well-known soaps, shampoos, detergents, and cosmetics also contain vegetable oils, of which palm oil is the most common. Palm oil makes your bar of soap harder and helps it lather up when wet. Palm oil in your shampoo helps restore the natural oils stripped from your hair during washing. Palm oil in your lipstick or lip balm helps hold color, prevent melting, and as an added benefit has virtually no taste. Palm oil is in your ice cream, your pizza crust, your bread, and pastries. Palm oil is a major source of biodiesel. And of course, it’s in your candy. Palm oil is everywhere. In fact, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), palm oil is found in nearly half of the products lining the shelves of your neighborhood supermarket.
You would think that a product that ubiquitous would be easy to identify. You would think that you could wander the aisles scanning ingredient labels and find palm oil everywhere, but you’d be wrong. Palm oil, as it turns out, is a master at hiding in plain sight. We modify palm oil chemically depending on its use and because of various loopholes and vagaries of current labeling laws; it’s often identified as something less obvious. The following is an incomplete list of palm oil pseudonyms commonly used in labeling (compliments of the WWF):
Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hydrated Palm Glycerides, Ethyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol.
As Americans, we don’t typically use palm oil for cooking and it’s virtually impossible to find in its raw form here; yet as a nation, we consume it in tremendous volume, and it’s in volume that the problem lies. Oil palms have been grown for centuries. Native to west and southwest Africa, oil palms were cultivated specifically because you can extract a tremendous amount of oil from their fruit. Historically used in traditional medicine and for cooking, it wasn’t until the industrial revolution that people began to discover its many additional uses. As oil palms grew in popularity and became a cash crop, they were exported to Malaysia, Indonesia, and other tropical environs where it has been a roaring success. Malaysia spent ages as the globally dominant force of palm oil production and only gave up its crown to Indonesia in 2006. Today Indonesia is the true powerhouse of palm oil.
The situation with palm oil in Indonesia today is not unlike what we Americans went through in the Midwest during the lead up to the dust bowl era. Like our wheat farmers of years past, today’s palm oil producers have a product that thrives in their climate more so than just about anywhere else. There also happens to be a voracious and growing market for that product. This rampant demand has led to an out of control explosion in the cultivation of oil palms.
In the case of the Midwest, the rampant over-cultivation of wheat and other grain crops in the early decades of the twentieth century degraded the topsoil and created the dust bowl. Mass erosion and the failure of the nutrient cycle transformed the verdant great plains into a swirling storm of choking, fine-particle dust famously recorded in photographs of the time. In Indonesia today, the ancient and expansive rainforest ecosystem is being similarly devastated.
The most efficient method of transforming chaotic natural rainforest into orderly and profitable oil palm plantations is through the tried and true technique we call “slash-and-burn.” Slash-and-burn consists of hacking down the rainforest, letting the vegetation dry and then burning it where it fell. This clears the earth and provides it with some degree of short-term fertilization. The freshly exposed and ash-covered soil is then planted with oil palms and the monoculture is off and running. To date, an area over twice the size of Belgium has been converted from interconnected forest containing thousands of species of flora and fauna to a monoculture orchard all with the effort of a few bulldozers and chainsaws.
This rampant deforestation is devastating to the local ecology of Indonesia which has been identified as being second only to Brazil in terms of its native biodiversity. As plants and animals lose habitat the food web collapses. Habitat loss and fragmentation result in widespread population declines across species. The remaining members of the impacted species are forced to seek alternative methods of survival. Just as wolves and coyotes in our country will turn to cattle and sheep when their traditional prey species decline, so too do the elephants, tigers, and orangutans of Indonesia venture onto these increasingly prominent palm oil plantations. As recently as 2004, some of the companies growing oil palms were offering bounties on the wild species deemed by them to be a “nuisance”. Already highly endangered animals including Sumatran rhinos, tigers, and orangutans are only growing more so as this industry grows and expands.
The slash-and-burn technique has a secondary and in some ways, worse impact as the burning releases captured carbon into the atmosphere. A growing tree constantly pulls carbon from the atmosphere and fixes it into the structure of its branches and leaves. The burning process releases this carbon in the same way our cars do when we burn gasoline. Furthermore, tropical forest soil in many places in Indonesia is actually something called peat soil. Due to the abundance of moisture and the never-ending growth season of the tropics, there is more build up of fallen organic matter in tropical forests than we see here in our temperate forests. Rather than decomposing to rich fertile topsoil, the forest floor is often instead composed of dense layers of partially decayed organic matter. You may have heard of well-preserved mummies being discovered in peat bogs in Europe. That mummification is possible because the consistently wet, compressed environment of the peat layer restricts decomposition. The thick Indonesian peat soils can represent hundreds or even thousands of years of ancient vegetation and accordingly, fixed carbon.
Peat does burn, quite well. Like a compressed fire-starter log, peat burns eagerly and is difficult to extinguish. If a forest fire in Indonesia ignites the peat layer, it can continue to burn, quietly, almost unnoticeably for months or even years. It does this by burning slowly and largely underground. In this respect, it’s just like the coal mine fires still cooking in some places in the United States.
In 2015 a drought in Indonesia highlighted the extent of the problem. The unusual dryness made the peat soil even more susceptible to ignition. As a result, over the course of several months, many hundreds of intentional and often illegal clearing fires ran out of control. They spread to the broader forest further decimating thousands of acres of delicate habitat. The abundant compressed biomass of the peat soils exacerbated the fires and exponentially increased the amount of pollution and particulate released. At the peak of the disaster, pillars of smoke could be seen from space climbing from the archipelago and blanketing not only Indonesia, but Malaysia, Singapore, and even parts of Thailand.
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends considering school closures whenever the air quality index (AQI) reaches 150 and becomes insistent once the AQI climbs above 300. In Jakarta, the massive metropolis serving as Indonesia’s Capitol, the worst day of 2016 so far had an AQI of 167. The AQI in Indonesia during the fire season of 2015 spiked to 3,000. For much of September of that year, the daily carbon emissions caused by the Indonesian wildfires surpassed the daily emissions of the entire US economy.
The tragic irony of the devastation rooted in the palm oil industry is how much of it is the result of really well-intentioned ideas. When we realized the devastating health impacts of trans fats and began to remove them from the American diet, in most cases they were replaced with cheap, abundant palm oil. When the European Union mandated that a certain percentage of their diesel be composed of biofuels, palm oil derived biodiesel became the substitute of choice. While vegetable oil derived biofuels release less carbon than petroleum while burning, when you factor in the production costs and deforestation, their carbon footprint is three times the size of their petroleum forebears.
So what do we do? Boycott palm oil? That may not be the best course of action for several reasons. Firstly, it would be nearly impossible; palm oil is simply too ubiquitous. Secondly, that wouldn’t solve the issue but merely push the demand onto another crop, likely soy or canola. While vegetable oil can be derived from many plants, as it turns out, none of them produce oil as efficiently or at lower ecological cost than oil palms. To replace the oil palm plantations with any other oil producing plant would actually make the problem worse. The problem isn’t the plant, it’s the production.
The way forward isn’t a boycott but rather a reformation. Monoculture farming is a bad idea in an ecosystem as dynamic as that of a tropical forest. Unfettered deforestation to make way for monoculture farming is an even worse idea as it destabilizes the broader ecosystem and can lead to catastrophic wildfires and dust bowls. The key to sustainable palm oil production is in regulation of clearing practices and modernization of cultivation policies.
Luckily for us, this is already underway. In 2004 the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil began a discussion between palm oil producers, their customers, conservation agencies, and other concerned parties. They established a certification program and standards of practice to help rein in the industry. While the RSPO is far from perfect, they are at least beginning to right the ship. Unilever, one of the largest users of palm oil has taken the lead in pushing for change. Not only have they been a driving force in establishing the RSPO, they’ve even gone so far as to blacklist RSPO certified producers who violated the pledge. Unilever produces Dove, Ben and Jerry’s, Axe, and Lipton to name a few. This massive multinational conglomerate took action not because of legislation or government mandate but because a relatively small number of concerned citizens pressured them.
Progress is taking place but it’s moving too slowly to be called a solution right now. The RSPO must be kept accountable, and every producer of palm oil must be pushed to sustainability if we don’t want the Sumatran tiger to follow its Balinese cousin into extinction. All it takes is pressure and it’s never been easier to apply that pressure. The main thing we common citizens can do is pay attention to our purchases and the easiest way to do that is to follow RSPO recommendations and to download the app produced by the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo which will help you identify products made with RSPO certified palm oil.
When you’re stocking up for Halloween this year, take a moment to question the candy that winds up in your cart. There are several guides out there to RSPO certified or orangutan friendly products. In fact, you can find one of them here. Our indifference as consumers allows for the unrestricted deforestation, rampant CO2 emissions, and increasingly endangered species seen throughout Indonesia. If we’re all just a bit more considerate in our purchases, we can turn this industry around. It’s happening already. This Halloween, let’s join together to make it happen a little faster.