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A parade of palm oil products

 Posted by on September 11, 2009
Sep 112009

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Digging into the palm oil debate, an urgent issue to many environmental groups, our reporter Ashley Phillips found herself slipping into a swamp of material.

For years, there has been a volley of claims and counter claims about the environmental and humanitarian consequences related to palm oil production.

The UN Environment Programme has blamed the massive destruction of rainforest in Malaysia and Indonesia for producing such a volume of manmade greenhouse gas emissions that it ranks behind only the US and China. These gases are released as the native rainforest is cleared to install or expand palm plantations, and it is exacerbated by the slash-and-burn clearing that is a double whammy to the atmosphere — removing carbon-holding rainforest while spewing carbon from massive wood fires.

Seemingly the only thing happening faster than the destruction of the rainforest in Southeast Asia is the consumer demand for palm oil which turns up in every 10th product at the grocery by some estimations.

You might be surprised to find that the eco-friendly sports bars or snacks you’re eating use palm oil. Why? It’s cheap. Hence it also turns up in dozens of soaps, eco- or not. It’s in cereal, chips, candy and cosmetics. Processed foods need oils as binders and as additives and for baking. This one costs the least.

Often palm oil is disguised on the label as “vegetable oil.” Sometimes it’s specifically labeled as “palm fruit oil.”

We looked for a good list of products containing palm oil and found that all of them were too long for this space. And we didn’t want to run something that’s outdated, because some companies are taking action. Whole Foods Markets have said they’re going to stop using palm oil in their goods.

The Rainforest Action Network runs a list of consumer goods made with palm oil that you may find concerning and eye-opening. It includes some otherwise Earth-friendly brands that I use, such as Burt’s Bees and Beauty Without Cruelty (a real veteran in natural products that began in the 1960s). Check out the list The Problem with Palm Oil before you hit the grocery.

RAN, based in San Francisco, also devotes several web pages to explaining the problems with palm oil production — how it contributes to deforestation and exploits workers (the other side argues that it provides jobs, though these are no mutually exclusive points.)

Graphics tell this story really well, too, like the one here by World Wildlife Fund about Borneo showing the loss of forest cover since 1950. This is not only a greenhouse gas issue, it has driven the orangutan to near extinction. (Ever chat with an orangutan at a zoo? It’s scary how much they think like us.)

Rainforest Action also names names, like the big multi-nationals that are deep into the business of producing and selling palm oil, like ADM, Bunge, Cargill.

Another way to learn about the many facets of the palm oil issue is to watch the movie Lost in Palm Oil commissioned by Friends of the Earth (excerpted above). It has an environmental bent, for sure, but its target audience is wide, Earthlings on a carbon-choked planet. Listen here to the indigenous people who are losing their homes and habitat to this agribusiness, weigh the positives and negatives and see where you end up.

I’ll bet you’ll be reading food labels very soon.

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