A couple of years ago, as I waited for my morning coffee to brew and my toast to, er, toast, I was reading the label of my peanut butter jar and had my entire organic, fair trade world thrown for a loop when I saw that my peanut butter contained palm oil.
What I’ve come to learn over the last few years is that the convoluted path that palm oil takes from plantation to product makes it very difficult for even the most environmentally conscious consumers to know whether the products they buy contribute to deforestation. It’s taken me many years and a lot of firsthand experience to fully understand the scope and scale of the problem.
Starting at the beginning
The first time I ever heard of palm oil was while studying abroad as an undergrad. I’d just spent a week camping on the beach in Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica where I had my first exposure to intact tropical forests. I woke up every morning at dawn to the sound of countless species of birds and insects; saw Agouti, Kuwaiti, and Peccaries (the tropical equivalent of rabbits, raccoons, and wild pigs) every time I hiked through the forest; and dodged mangoes and cashews thrown by White-Faced Capuchin monkeys.
Shortly after our bus left the park we drove through a palm oil plantation. What I saw was worlds apart from the forest I’d just left. Gone were all the diverse species of plants and animals, replaced instead with row upon row of identical palm trees, with very little growing underneath, and no animal life in sight.
As I’d come to learn later, only about 15 percent of animal species that are found in primary forests remain after the forest is converted to palm plantations. That two-hour drive was my first experience with the stark reality of what we lose when forests are cleared and replaced by palm oil.
What can be done?
Which brings me back to my peanut butter. Having seen firsthand the destruction and devastation that irresponsible palm oil development can cause, I was left wondering if the food I eat and the products I use are contributing to the problem. The answer is that it’s very hard to know for sure.
The road from plantation to product is long and complex. At many points along the supply chain, palm oil from different plantations is mixed. This allows palm oil plantation owners who are destroying forests to hide behind the lack of transparency. The best way to hold these bad actors accountable is for the companies that make our cookies, chocolates, conditioners and cosmetics to commit to not buy any palm oil that causes deforestation and to trace their palm oil back to its origin to ensure it is deforestation-free.
And the best thing for me and you to do to protect tropical forests? Well, the first thing you can do is breathe a sigh of relief, because it’s OK to keep buying products that contain palm oil (no need to give up those Girl Scout cookies quite yet). For reasons I won’t get into here (they involve words like “fungibility” and can be found in our report Recipes for Success), boycotting palm oil has little effect on the amounts and ways its produced.
Part of the problem with palm oil is that very few of us have heard of it. Most of us don’t know it’s an ingredient in the products we buy or that it contributes to global warming. So, a few colleagues and I developed an infographic explaining this hidden part of the climate problem.
Be part of the solution
Then help raise awareness about what palm oil is, how it’s causing global climate change, and how we can pressure companies to adopt deforestation-free palm oil policies.
It may seem like a small thing, given the magnitude of the problem, but little things add up. For instance, last December when Wilmar International, the world’s largest trader of palm oil, announced a no-deforestation commitment, it called out the role consumer demand played in shaping its policy:
“We know from our customers and other stakeholders that there is a strong and rapidly growing demand for traceable, deforestation-free palm oil, and we intend to meet it as a core element of our growth strategy.”
The time to act is now, and companies will listen to you, so what are you waiting for?
This post first appeared on the UCS blog on February 19, 2014.