April 10, 2012

FOOD & AG: The Problem with Palm Oil

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The other night, I made myself a piece of toast with Nutella as a reward for actually finishing my readings. As I opened the creamy hazelnut spread, I started to read the ingredients on the container, but my excitement quickly turned to distress.

The fact that sugar is the first ingredient isn’t what upset me (although it does help explain why it’s so tasty!). What bothered me was the second ingredient: palm oil.

Palm oil is used in half of all consumer goods, from packaged foods to body lotion. U.S. demand for palm oil has tripled in the last 5 years.

Oil palms, the plant that produces the oil, requires a tropical climate. The reason I have a problem with palm oil is because cultivation of this crop is moving into rainforests and making palm oil one of the main causes of deforestation. Forests must be completely leveled in order to plant the trees. This crop is grown mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia, where they are devastating landscapes, wildlife, and people’s livelihoods.

The damage to tropical rainforests is massive. The Indonesian government plans to convert approximately 18 million more hectares of rainforest into palm oil plantations by 2020. These rainforests are some of the most diverse in the world and are home to endangered species such as Sumatran tigers, Sumatran elephants, and Orangutans (Problem With Palm Oil Factsheet).

In addition to the on-site environmental and social impacts, palm oil also has major global impacts. Eighty percent of Indonesia’s carbon emissions are from deforestation, making it the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

Palm oil production has terrible consequences, but this story isn’t all gloom and doom. Some palm oil producers have learned how to have a smaller impact and have even started the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The challenge lies in convincing agricultural companies to adopt sustainable practices.

So the next time you encounter this problematic product, I hope you either do what these Girl Scouts did or what I try my best to do whenever I go shopping: avoid products with palm oil — even if it means giving up your favorite foods (Farewell, Nutella).

Interested in learning more? This video made by the World Wildlife Fund offers a great summary of the problem: Palm Oil: how our consumer choices affect wildlife.

Andrea Sanders is a student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She may be reached at als363@cornell.edu. The Missing Link: Food & Ag appears on Wednesdays. 

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Original Author: Andrea Sanders

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