You have probably heard about the controversial use of palm oil in vegan products. In fact many do not consider the oil, which is derived from a fruit, to be vegan in the philosophical sense. Palm oil plantations have accounted for the destruction of over 30,000 square miles of tropical forests along the equator. In Indonesian Sumatra deforestation has pushed exotic species such as tigers, elephants, and orangutans into critical endangerment. Over the past 10 years alone the wild Sumatran orangutan population has decreased by 50%, with an estimated 6,300 left in the wild. With a greater light shedding on this destruction, why is it that palm oil continues to be used in products that are otherwise cruelty-free?
The palm fruit tree is native to tropical rainforests and can only grow in areas within 10 degrees north or south of the equator. This means that for a product in such high levels of demand there is very little land on which it can grow. To make way for plantations tropical rainforests are destroyed and palms are planted in their place, taking about 4 years to flourish. Workers pick or knock out the budding palm fruit and send it to manufacturing plants where it is turned into oil and then shipped around the world for its many different uses. Due to its moisturizing and glazing properties, palm oil is found in formulas for many brands of household, beauty, and food products. Of most concern to the vegan community in recent years is the overwhelming use of palm oil in alternative butters and cheeses, as in the case of Earth Balance.
The rainforests threatened by palm oil production are uniquely lush and diverse, housing over half of the world’s species of flora and fauna. In recent years, conflict palm oil harvesting has become the leading contributor to rainforest destruction. Not only are wild orangutans displaced in the name of palm oil, but they are also killed as pests when they return to what’s left of their habitat. In addition to the environmental concerns, palm oil carries serious health implications. According to the documentary Sumatra Burning, an estimated 60,000 locals suffer from breathing complications due to smog caused by deforestation. Palm oil laborers are compensated with next-to-nothing wages. Many native communities have tried to stand up to these exploitative corporations, only to be forced out of the discussion. Unfortunately, it appears that many ethical vegan companies are not immune from corporate mal-governance. By using ingredients as destructive as palm oil, these businesses are essentially standing for profit above all else.
Despite all this, there is hope for the future of palm oil. Thanks to organizations like the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), strides have been made towards farming palm oil in a sustainable, deforestation-free way. Boulder Brands—the mother company to Earth Balance—has even received praise from the POIG for being the most committed brand joining the fight against unsustainable palm oil. But frustrated customers will recall having their objecting comments deleted on Earth Balance’s social media as recently as 2 weeks ago. As of November 2019, Earth Balance’s Palm oil transparency page has been deleted from their website—so it remains to be seen how seriously they are taking the issue. Thousands of other companies, many of them vegan, have taken their own version of the “Palm Oil Pledge” to ensure that they are working towards sourcing fair-trade, non-destructive, cruelty-free palm oil.
But there remain some legitimate concerns for these claims. For starters, the RSPO offers a green certification to companies who use palm oil responsibly; but this does very little to actually guarantee that any sustainable practices were met. This is a disappointingly good example of greenwashing, a phenomenon describing declarations of sustainability where there are none. This leads to the inevitable question: must we continue to use palm oil at all? Couldn’t we, instead of stretching the definition of what is and isn’t eco-friendly, simply use an alternative?
It has been said that palm oil is an essential industry. This is due primarily to the fact that it is a) both edible and safe to use on skin, b) free of trans-fat, c) can be used in place of practically any other oil, and d) cheap. Earlier this year scientists announced an exciting alternative to palm oil, one that is derived from yeast. Pulcherrima is remarkably similar in its chemical make up and potential usage, and can be grown virtually anywhere. However, the cost of production is not yet comparable to that of palm oil. This would undoubtedly lead to an increase in the shelf price of our favorite groceries. But vegans, perhaps more than the average consumer, can understand the importance of paying extra for a guaranteed cruelty-free product. Still, large companies like Boulder Brands are predictably prioritizing their production costs and profit margins while looking to make big changes such as this.
This topic continues to divide the vegan community. Some believe that supporting the palm oil pledge is an important first step towards reversing the effects of this ugly industry. Others think that the vagueness surrounding what is deemed sustainable only reaffirms that ALL products containing palm oil, certified or not, can be assumed to be contributing to deforestation.
On top of that, vegan products specifically make up a modest percentage of the demand for palm oil in the first place. It would be safe to assume that even if every vegan brand were to go palm oil free overnight, it would still be decades before we see the end of its demand as a whole. These are decades that the orangutans, the elephants, the tigers, might not have. We know that the best ways to communicate with corporations are through activism, boycotts, and social media. Whether you believe that the “palm oil pledge” deserves support or deserves a boycott, be sure to consider the importance of ingredient integrity when perusing the aisles of the grocery store. You just might be surprised by what you find.
See more environment news: What You Should Know About Coconut Oil and Animal Exploitation
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Photo: Rainforest Action Network via Flickr