Palm oil seems to be everywhere these days. It has slowly infiltrated food and cosmetic products in the UK and is readily used in the U.S. where the issue of GM foods is far higher on their list of concerns. I would argue that this should not be the case. Genetically modified foods are simply bred with the most desirable characteristics such as the largest size, the fastest growth rate or relative resistance to certain weather conditions. Photographs of vegetables being injected with an unknown substance from a syringe are downright scaremongering. I understand the implications for farmers and other major disadvantages of GM but many of the so-called facts are simply myths (but that’s a whole other post).
Oil palm is grown mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia, which account for 85% of global palm oil production.
Oil palm is widely grown throughout Indonesia, Malaysia and other south east Asian countries where it is having catastrophic effects on plant and animal biodiversity; the most famous case being that of the orangutan in Borneo and Sumatra. These huge, beautiful apes are having their homes and food stocks torn away to make way for vast expansions of the plant, killing animals and leaving young apes orphaned, unable to care for themselves. Infant orangutans stay with their mothers for up to 8 years learning how to fend for themselves in the wild. Without this education they are left unable to survive and unless they are lucky enough to be found and taken to a sanctuary they are highly unlikely to make it past a few months or weeks on their own. 100 years ago there were thought to be 315,000 orangutans in the wild.
There are now fewer than 6,600 orangutans left in Sumatra, and fewer than 54,000 in Borneo.
There are, of course, some major advantages of growing oil palm; it uses the least amount of space for the yield compared to other oil plants, the farmers make enough money to send their children to school and live a moderately comfortable life. Unfortunately these benefits are not enough to make up for the devastation it is causing to the areas in which it is grown. Other oil plants such as olive and sunflower can be grown in more varying conditions and therefore many more locations so they have less of an impact on the world as a whole. Recovering plantations are unable to satisfy the dire need for plant diversity where the same species of trees are planted in rows; orangutan’s homes are not replenished in this way.
I was lucky enough to have the chance to witness this issue first-hand on location in Borneo. Flying low over the island it was clear to see how much of an impact oil palm has; for miles and miles it was the only plant to be seen. Growing in massive plots that would have been wiped clean of other plants and with those, thousands of species of animals.
Massive multi-national companies buy and use millions of tonnes of palm oil each year. Starbucks, as well as being plagued by human rights violations and tax evasion makes empty promises to sustainably source their palm oil. PepsiCo point blank refuses to admit there is a problem and makes no moves towards decreasing their annual half a million tonne palm oil consumption.
There is still hope if big companies convert back to other vegetable oils that can be grown with slightly less of an environmental impact. Individuals can also make a difference by refusing to buy their products. From PepsiCo these include Doritos, Lays/Walkers, Tropicana, Mountain Dew, Lipton and Quaker. If we do nothing, the trend will be allowed to continue and we will see the complete depletion and extinction of these beautiful animals.
Peace, love and say no to palm oil.