Saving species such as the tiger can often seem like an overwhelming task. No one wants to see iconic species such as tigers and orangutans go extinct. When I talk to people about this topic, a common theme appears: I feel bad, but the problem is on the other side of the world so there’s nothing I can do. Luckily for tigers, this couldn’t be further from the truth! We live in a world where we can order anything our hearts desire, and it can be shipped from all corners of the world within days. This global connection is amazing, but it means we need to become responsible consumers. While there are several issues affecting tiger populations, one of the most significant is habitat loss. Their forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, with one of the newer reasons being clear cutting land to grow a product called palm oil.
Palm oil, have you heard of it? Five years ago my answer was probably no. Now, it’s become a part of my day to day life. Learning about palm oil was an eye opening experience. The more I read, the deeper the issue became and the more unstoppable it appears to be. It is in at least 50% of our household products including everything from cleaning products and make-up to snack foods and candy. It goes by over 200 names, including vegetable oil. If it’s in so many products, it can’t really be that bad, can it? Well, this is where it gets tricky. The product itself is great.
- Palm oil is an important and versatile vegetable oil, which is used as raw material for both food and non-food industries.
- Oil palm trees are highly efficient oil producers, with each fruit containing about 50% oil. As a result, they require ten times less land than other oil-producing crops.
- The beta carotene in it improves vision, increases energy, prevents cardiovascular issues, and can promote a healthy pregnancy.
Here is some of the ugly truth. The problem is not the product itself. It is the way that it is grown, the amount of land it requires, and the exponentially growing demand for it. Currently, Indonesia and Malaysia supply about 85% of the palm oil used globally. It is great for their economy, but devastating for animals such as Sumatran tigers and orangutans. At the current rate of destruction, 98% of the forests in that area may be destroyed by 2022. In 2015, I had the honor of traveling to Borneo. I already knew about palm oil and thought I understood the severity of the problem. It turns out it was so much worse than I could have ever imagined. Flying back and forth across the island, I imagined seeing jungles in every direction. In reality, it was oil palm trees as far as I could see. I saw fires. I saw emptiness. Two months after I returned from my trip, an illegal plantation started a fire which grew out of control. At one point, ⅓ of the country was on fire.
This part of the world is ideal for growing crops because of the climate and the peat swamps that these species call home. To start the process, the peatland is drained which releases around 6,000 tons of CO2 per hectare. While preparing the rainforest land for planting, the valuable trees are cut down and the rest of the forest is set on fire- this common technique is called slash and burn. Anything that remains in the forest is left to perish, animals and people included. To aid in the growth of the oil palm trees, chemicals are added to the land that makes the soil unusable after they are done. This is not a sustainable practice. Many of the plantations are growing their crops illegally and stealing land from local people and parks. According to the Centre for Orangutan Protection, in 2006 at least 1,500 endangered orangutans were clubbed to death to remove them from plantations. It is predicted that orangutans could become extinct in the wild in the next five to ten years and Sumatran tigers as soon as five. Until this happens there is always something that can be done, there is still time to make a difference!
Is there sustainable palm oil?
The answer is not as clear as one would hope. They say about 16% of palm oil is sustainable. The reality is that it is very hard to track. Most of the companies that use it in their products don’t participate in the production. Historically, it was very difficult to track the source due to corruption in the countries where it was mainly produced. Since palm oil has been a larger, more popular issue in the past couple of years, several companies have felt the pressure to be more responsible and use sustainable palm oil. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is an organization that is dedicated to pushing companies to use sustainable palm oil, trying to keep the sources honest, and monitoring the impact of the palm oil industry. Companies that join the RSPO proudly display the logo on their label (see 1 below). Supporting these products and brands is surely a good start!
What can you do about all palm oil?
Avoiding palm oil altogether is tough, although it would be great. It’s important to keep in mind that every choice we make has an impact. Each product that we buy, each company we support, and how we use these things add up! Start small by reading labels while you’re shopping. If you see a choice between a product with palm oil and one without, great! Easy choice. If you see one with the certified palm oil free label (see 2 below), I would proudly show that company my support. What if palm oil is listed under one of the numerous names? What if there is no label telling me what they’re doing with the palm oil? An easy way around this is to use an app. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has created a user-friendly app to help with shopping (see 3 below and click on the image to be redirected to the app store). The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo website has great resources and updates on palm oil. There are handouts, lists of companies to support, and the latest news.
Want to take it a step further?
Be the change you want to see! Start your research, see which companies have been asked to change and won’t, and make your voice heard. There are petitions floating around. Pick up a phone and call these companies and tell them that you demand a change. Few of these companies would not have bothered had someone not started to speak up. It may feel like you only have one voice, but sometimes that’s all it takes to start a movement. Just ask the two Girl Scouts from Michigan who decided to take a stand against the palm oil in Girl Scout cookies in 2011. It wasn’t easy, but they didn’t give up and their story was picked up by international news channels and distributed around until they got a meeting with the senior executives of The Girl Scouts. Now Kellogg’s, the manufacturer of Girl Scout cookies, has committed to reducing their use of palm oil and only use palm oil from companies that had adopted zero-deforestation policies.
Consuming can no longer just be about convenience. We must do better. In fact, the future of our favorite species depends on it.