What’s happening in Indonesia? The rapid deforestation, draining of peatland, and burning off to
accommodate palm plantations. And why is palm oil such a big deal?
Palm oil is a common ingredient in foods, cosmetics, and increasingly biofuels. The demand has been increasing quickly, partially due to the rush to replace transfat rich partially hydrogenated oils with industry favorite palm oil. Palm oil is now in about 10% of supermarket products, and the second most widely produced edible oil.
Since the 1990s, the land area being used for palm oil plantations has increased by about 43%. Compared to 2000, palm oil demand is predicted to double by 2030 and triple by 2050. Globally, there are currently about 11 million hectares of palm plantations. Indonesia contains about 6 million of these hectares. Nearby Malaysia is another concentrated source of palm plantations. Together Indonesia and Malaysia are responsible for production of 83% of the world’s palm oil (UNEP).
Palm plantations tend to be on newly cleared land, rather than abandoned, already clear land (UNEP). In order to meet the rising demand for palm oil, large areas of Southeast Asian rainforest are being cleared, and peatland is being drained and burned. Between 1985-2000, 87% of Malaysia’s deforestation was caused by new palm oil plantations. In the last 8 years, the amount of land in Indonesia that is devoted to palm oil has increased by 118%. Indonesia is threatened by the world’s highest rate of tropical rainforest loss. 80% of Indonesian land clearing is illegal, and therefore human rights abuses are prevalent. The rainforest and peatland destruction are releasing huge amount of carbon emissions, and has made Indonesia the third largest producer of carbon emissions, after the US and China. According to one Dutch study, the draining of Indonesian peatland releases 660 million tons of carbon per year into the atmosphere, and the subsequent burning contributed an additional 1.5 billion tons of carbon annually.
Of the land cleared since 1990, only a third has been planted with palm plantations.
Not only is the atmosphere under threat, so are many of the endangered species living in the Indonesian and Malaysian rainforest. Did you hear the one about the Girl Scouts who decided to boycott cookie selling? Habitat destruction hurts rhinos and elephants, and could lead to extinction for orangutans and Sumatran white tigers within 10 years. By clear cutting the forests and setting fires, the palm oil industry is also making it easier for hunters and traders to access the orangutans
So what’s being done?
A group of retailers, manufacturers, and suppliers have gathered together to form the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. While the goal of the group is to set standards for producing palm oil sustainably, their current standards are not strong enough to ensure that forests and peatlands are not destroyed in order to meet the growing palm oil demand. Roundtable Vice President Darrel Webber “admits that the process ‘isn't perfect,’ in part because liquid oils are easy to mix and nearly impossible to track.” The Roundtable's standards do not include inspections of the palm plantations. The Roundtable's efforts are further weakened because member companies generally cannot trace the original source of processed palm oil, which makes it impossible to determine if the oil comes from destroyed peatlands.
So what can I do?
- Check your labels! Even “natural” goods are not safe from unsavory palm oil- Burt's Bees soap, Trader Joe’s chocolate truffles, Kashi breakfast bars, and Whole Foods water crackers all list palm oil as an ingredient. However, there is just about always an equally good replacement product that is palm oil free.
- Be wary of “vegetable oil” as a listed ingredient. This may mean palm oil.
- Vitamin A palmitate, frequently found in dairy, and palmitic acid are also derived from palm oil.
- Write letters to companies using palm oil or “vegetable oil” and tell them about your concerns!
Products containing palm oil:
It pays to check labels yourself, because these lists aren't exhaustive, and the data may have changed. But this is a place you can get started:
Hear it straight from the horse’s mouth:
United Nations Environmental Programme. (2007). The last stand of the orangutan - State of emergency: Illegal logging, fire and palm oil in Indonesia’s national parks.