That said, Morgan points out, “some of the largest funders of palm oil exploration are U.S.-based companies like Cargill and Arthur Daniels Midland.”
She adds that consumers who are becoming aware of the threats and are now trying to limit products that contain palm oil and its kin (from bath products to leather to a steamy cup of hot cocoa) might also take their boycott a step further and “write letters to the Cargills and the ADM’s of the world and tell them why you’re no longer buying their products.”
Or as Swink explains, hook up with RAN and its on-going campaigns – from stickering rainforest-unfriendly products in grocery stores to mounting a “bag it” campaign against the fashion industry, which could have factored in Gucci’s recent announcement.
About those large corporations: Some companies are trying to lessen the palm oil problem by using what the industry calls “sustainable palm oil” – a commodity supported by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which formed in 2004 to address consumer concerns as they began connecting the dots between chocolate bars and orangutans.
In response to written inquiries about the industry and the recent protests against it, a Cargill representative wrote back that the company is trying to change – but also must balance demands for sustainable change with basic demands for food production.
“We believe Cargill is making important contributions to ensuring that palm oil is grown sustainably throughout the entire palm oil industry. Cargill is a food company, and as such our job is to make sure that people everywhere have enough to eat. Palm is an important part of that,” says spokeswoman Jackie Renner. But, she adds, “we are committed to sustainable palm oil production. We have taken aggressive steps to get our own palm oil estates to meet the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)’s standards. One of our plantations is currently certified and we are working as quickly as possible to get all five certified. … Even before the RSPO sustainability criteria were finalized, we had policies for responsible palm production on our own plantations.”
Perhaps most importantly, Cargill’s current policies call for “no planting on high-conservation forests,” she said. “We do not develop on deep peat land, and we have a ‘no-burn’ policy for land preparation.”
Renner also said the company has a goal of “buying 60 percent of our total crude palm oil from RSPO members by the end of 2012. This phased-in approach allows suppliers time to meet the rigorous criteria for RSPO certification, while setting a clear benchmark as the industry moves towards producing palm oil in a more sustainable way.”
So new question: What exactly is sustainable palm oil?
To the RSPO, a sustainable palm plantation is minimizes impact on indigenous people, avoids “overspraying” herbicides, uses cover crops “after felling an old stand,” and avoids damage to “high conservation habitat” where endangered species are found. These ideal practices can be found in the RSPO’s sustainability principles.
But critics say that the practice of planting, harvesting and expanding palm plantations does not meet the ideal.
“In a word, sustainable palm oil is a myth,” says Morgan, who works with the Palm Oil Monitoring Initiative in Indonesia – a network of grassroots Indonesian NGO’s fighting agriculture companies and other interests that are illegally usurping indigenous lands for palm-oil plantation.
“Sustainable palm oil does not exist. The Roundtable – despite the best of efforts of some great NGO’s to make the RPSO something better than just a greenwasher – has basically failed. The way the Roundtable is set up means that… (if) you have one mill on all of your plantations, just one, you can claim to be a producer of sustainable palm oil. So the term doesn’t mean anything. It’s a total greenwash. And it’s really sad because there are some great local, small-scale palm oil plantations – in Colombia and Ghana – that are doing sustainable (production) and selling to organic manufacturers in the United States. So if it’s (from) Colombia or Ghana, it probably is sustainable.” Beyond that, she and others on the front line see the term as meaningless.
But people are getting it, people are getting involved, they say.
True, it may be difficult to connect those favorite Chanel or Bodyworks toiletries with dying baby orangutans, but if we stop and consider the carbon cycle, as Swink suggests, it may not be so hard to fathom. We truly are what we eat – our world is what it eats.
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