Consumers should buy only sustainably grown palm oil products

Palm oil can be found in nearly half of all grocery store products. It is employed for a wide variety of uses, including pre-cooking instant noodles, enhancing the shininess of chocolate, increasing the creaminess of ice cream and even improving the taste of lipstick. This delectably versatile ingredient is the most widely used vegetable oil on the planet, but the true costs of palm oil aren’t as easy to swallow as the treats it is found in.

The rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia are some of the most breathtakingly biodiverse regions on the planet. Tigers prowl the forest floors, and elephants galavant through the foliage, while orangutans swing from the treetops. These tropical island nations also harbor Javan and Sumatran rhinos, the first and second rarest species of rhino in the world, respectively. In addition to these large, charismatic creatures, there are countless other fascinating species of plants, animals and insects that dwell in the mystifying jungles of Indonesia and Malaysia. Unfortunately, nearly 30 percent of known species are now endangered or threatened by habitat loss and deforestation, which is being driven primarily by palm oil producers.

Palm oil trees grow naturally in tropical rainforests, but they are interspersed among vast swaths of other indigenous plants, most of which possess little or no commercial value, although they are vital for the specialized forms of life that have evolved to live among them. Thanks to their economic significance, palm oil trees are given preferential treatment over most other native species. Miles upon miles of rainforests are clear cut each day to make room for endless, monotonous rows of palm oil trees. Despite the fact that Malaysia and Indonesia, along with other countries in Africa and South America, have enacted laws prohibiting careless, unregulated clear cutting, criminal plantations persistently supply a significant percentage of the world’s palm oil.

While rapacious palm oil plantations in tropical rainforests wreak direct havoc on exotic, indigenous wildlife, they also pose an indirect, though very real threat to people and the planet at large. When diverse jungles are clear cut to accommodate palm oil monocultures, the vegetative casualties that once absorbed carbon dioxide release tons of it back into the atmosphere. On top of the carbon dioxide that escapes from the corpses of fallen trees, tremendous amounts are also dislodged from the rainforest’s carbon rich peat soil after clear cutting occurs. By turning carbon sinks — regions that naturally remove carbon from the air, such as rainforests — into sources of carbon pollution, palm oil production contributes heavily to the acceleration of climate change. It is estimated that the palm oil industry is responsible for roughly 10 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions.

As of today, only about one percent of all palm oil is produced sustainably, but thanks to the efforts of environmental advocates and conscious consumers, that number is on the rise. In 2004 the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed, and it now certifies “sustainably” grown palm oil products. To receive RSPO certification producers must prove that their trees were grown on land that is specifically designated for palm oil, so as to minimize further deforestation. They must also show that their trees were grown legally in areas that have not been set aside for conservation or wildlife protection. Furthermore, RSPO certified oil cannot be grown on peatlands, or swampy lands, reducing the amount of carbon pollution resulting from their production. Finally, the RSPO has a greenhouse gas emission threshold for all certified palm oil producers.

These measures seem to be a step in the right direction, but the RSPO has come under heavy fire from the Union of Concerned Scientists, who say that the certification standards are subpar in terms of sustainability. UCS’s major qualm with the RSPO process is that it only holds producers accountable for land use practices beginning in 2008. Therefore, if a palm oil plantation has been situated on protected land, land that has been deforested irresponsibly, or peat-soil, since 2008, then it can still be grandfathered into the certification process. Thus, RSPO certification does not necessarily ensure that the product was made in a sustainable, environmentally safe way.

The UCS petitioned the RSPO to enact more stringent regulations, but to no avail. So the UCS conducted its own research and devised a scorecard ranking the most and least legitimately sustainable suppliers of palm oil products. Nestlé holds the top spot among packaged food companies, and Kraft comes in last. L’Oréal scores highest among personal care products, while Estée Lauder and Clorox — which sells Burt’s Bees — fight for the notorious title of least sustainable. Other categories can be found on the UCS’s website.

So next time you buy a candy bar, a bar of soap, lipstick, pizza or myriad other grocery store products, check to see if they contain palm oil. If the product does, check to see if it is RSPO-certified, or better yet, check out how the company ranks on the UCS’s scorecard. Once you start looking for it, you will be surprised at how frequently we use palm oil in our daily lives. While it can be a bummer to think that our affinity for tasty snacks and smooth textures is contributing to the desolation of the Earth and its most majestic creatures, it is also empowering to know that, through simple changes in our consumption habits, we can become champions for the planet’s rainforests and their awesome inhabitants.

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