As vegans, we try to minimize the impact our choices have on the earth. But in our current system of intricately bound global market, food production, and international commodities trade, it is impossible to make a truly conscious choice without reading the fine print. Even things that are vegan (100% plant-based) by definition can have devastating impact on the environment and wildlife. The harmful effects of industrial soy and corn production, especially for animal feed and biofuel, are by now well-known. But the effects of palm oil, the most produced oil in the world (soybean oil comes in second), are more acute and dangerous–and not nearly as commonly discussed.
Palm oil is derived from the fruit of the African oil palm tree, and has been used by humans for over 5,000 years in parts of Africa. But the production and use of palm oil today bears no resemblance to most of this history: today, the vast majority of palm oil is produced in Indonesia, followed by Malaysia. In Indonesia, clearing of land for palm (as well as wood and paper) has destroyed one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. An estimated 73% of all clearing of land are illegal, perpetrated by corporations or subsistence farmers; last month, the forest fires in Indonesia led the Malaysian government to declare a state of emergency, with air pollution reaching record levels all-around the region. And after such illegal fires, what replaces the lush jungle is thousands of acres of palm plantation, as far as the eye can see.
The loss of their jungle habitat is threatening some of the rarest and most beloved animal species in the world, such as the Asian rhinoceros, Sumatran tiger, the endangered Bornean orangutan and the critically endangered Sumatran orangutans. Prized animals like orangutans that survive the fires and deforestation are captured and sold as pets, zoo or circus animals. (Click here for images; viewer discretion advised).
So what part do you have in this tragedy happening halfway around the world? As it turns out, we are far more responsible for this situation than we may realize. Palm oil production has soared with increasing demand in the international market, since it is cheaper than soybean oil, and far cheaper than coconut oil and olive oil. Since it’s so cheap and most countries–including the U.S. and the E.U.–don’t require specific labeling, palm oil exists in countless processed food items, make up, body products, household cleaning products, biofuel, even paint and printer ink. Many packaged “vegan” foods might have palm oil labeled vaguely as “vegetable oil” or “vegetable fat.” Even seemingly conscious brands might have products that contain palm oil under its various guises. For instance, the first ingredient in Amazing Grace Shampoo, Bath and Shower Gel from the popular brand Philosophy (after water) is Sodium Laureth Sulfate, which is derived from palm oil.
What we can do as consumers is simple: just as we drove UP the demand for palm, we can also drive it DOWN by choosing products without palm oil or its derivatives. There are plenty of products out there that offer palm-free alternatives. But the best alternative, as always, is to consume mindfully, and minimally–buying a packaged product with coconut oil might be better than buying one made with palm oil, but it is ultimately less effective than consuming less packaged goods in general. Palm oil crisis is yet another lesson that the first priority in sustainability should be reducing our drive for consumption.
Early this morning, Bloomberg reported that palm oil price has peaked, breaking the best run since December 2010. Ironically, the reason for this wasn’t the growing consumer awareness about palm production, but investors’ fear the prices have been climbing too quickly and too much–thus it is more of an indication of palm production’s rapid rise (and commodities traders’ willingness to cash in on it), rather than a sign of a structural change. We think of global market as an economic model based on textbook supply and demand, trusting that somewhere things will settle as they should. But we can’t trust the vastly self-interested players in this game–Indonesian government, multinational corporations, product companies, commodities traders–to make the right choice. We only have ourselves to start the change.
More in Editorial: Arctic Ice Melt in 2013 was Better Than Expected–But That May Not Be Enough
Why You Should Care About GM Wheat
What you can do
*Volunteer, donate, spread the word for these non-profit organizations
*Be aware of these common names for palm oil (Credit: Say No to Palm Oil)
-Sodium Laureth Sulfate (in almost everything that foams) ^
-Sodium Lauryl Sulfate ^
-Sodium Dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS) ^
-Palm Oil Kernel #
-Palm Fruit Oil #
-Glyceryl Stearate #
-Stearic Acid #
-Elaeis Guineensis #
-Palmitic Acid #
-Palm Stearine #
-Palmitoyl oxostearamide #
-Palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3 #
-Steareth -2 *
-Steareth -20 *
-Sodium Kernelate #
-Sodium Palm Kernelate #
-Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate *
-Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate ^
-Hyrated Palm Glycerides #
-Sodium Isostearoyl Lactylaye ^
-Cetyl Palmitate #
-Octyl Palmitate #
-Cetyl Alcohol ^
-Palmityl Alchohol #
# These ingredients are definitely palm oil or derived from palm oil.
* These ingredients are often derived from palm oil, but could be derived from other vegetable oils.
^ These ingredients are either derived from palm oil or coconut oil.
Photo: Rainforest Alliance Network via Flickr; Philosophy