Joining the Dots: Palm Oil

A few years ago I was in the lunch queue at a Green Party conference in the UK when I heard someone at the front complaining that “there’s palm oil in these muffins!”

At the time, I admit, I wasn’t quite sure what palm oil was, or why it was bad. But I made a mental note to look up palm oil when I got home. Which I did …. and found out that intensive palm oil production ( as opposed to palm oil per se) was one of the greatest threats to the survival of endangered species including orangutans and Sumatran elephants, as well as to forest peoples, being a key cause of rain forest destruction.

A palm oil audit ensued in our house – I used resources from the Orangutan Foundation International as a ‘food journeys’ home schooling project with my three boys. It turned out that palm oil got into lots of foods we might not have suspected, including my vegan butter. On a trip to the local supermarket we then discovered that it was pretty much impossible to buy ready-made cakes or cookies there that didn’t contain palm oil.

Fast forward to 2017, and nothing much has changed in the supermarket. But there’s greater public awareness around the palm oil industry, as well as around the use of palm kernel as a cheap feed in intensive animal farming (especially intensive cattle farming). Industrial agriculture’s demand for palm kernel is, in fact, now seriously propping up the sector (for a good overview of this, and of palm oil production’s impact on the Sumatran elephant in particular, see Philip Lymbery’s excellent Dead Zone).

The problem of palm oil is one which really highlights how the items we consume in our daily lives can affect endangered species across the globe; according to the Rainforest Action Network, palm oil is used in around 50% of our consumer goods, from ready-made foods through lipsticks to biofuels.

Just a few years ago in that party conference lunch queue I hadn’t known what palm oil was, or how it was produced. Now it’s almost too late to act (the ‘almost’ is important, though).

It’s hard to imagine that muffins, breads or pies made here in the UK can impact so negatively on wild elephants in Sumatra – but that’s the nature of the global food industry. Palm oil is used because it’s cheap to produce and because corporations are allowed to ride rough-shod over terrain including rain forest to mass-produce the stuff.

We have to always join the dots when we consider where things come from; and if the dots seem to spell out ‘human greed’, then we need the willingness and the energy to re-arrange them so that they might, instead, come to spell ‘awareness’ … and ‘action’. Corporations are powerful; but so are informed consumers.

2015-02-24 23.32.21
Elephant detail on a building next to the Thames in Savoy Place, London.



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