Guest Blogger: So What Does “Sustainable Palm Oil” Really Mean?

Today’s guest poster is a fellow animal advocate, Annamarie, and someone who I have known in the industry for quite some time. Recently she raised some interesting points about this so-called “Sustainable Palm Oil”, and I asked her to put her thoughts to written word because I thought they were good points! She was gracious enough to do so for me:

I realized, today, that I really don’t know much about palm oil. I don’t feel very comfortable acknowledging that, because it is an incredibly important issue, and I really SHOULD know about it. When it comes to issues impacting unique, critically endangered wildlife, this is a biggie. Palm oil production threatens to wipe certain species from the Earth, while causing unspeakable suffering to individuals of these species, with orangutans being the “poster child” of palm plantation imposed suffering. Have you seen that Greenpeace ad where the guy is unwrapping a Kit Kat bar, and looks inside and finds an orangutan finger? Nestle went ballistic over this ad and had it removed from YouTube — after all, being called an orangutan killer is less than flattering. But are they? And how does palm oil kill orangutans, anyway? And what about “sustainable” palm oil? We can eat that, right?

And please note — palm oil is in just about EVERYTHING, even when you don’t know it. I say this to let you know that we are talking about astronomical volumes — not something that can easily be satisfied by a couple of small, non-invasive plantations. One tactic used in labeling is to simply call palm oil something else. Many of the ingredients that we commonly see, and don’t know what they really are, are palm oil, or CAN be made from palm oil, such as stearic acid, oleic acid, or just plain “vegetable oil”. Here is a more complete list: www.animal.org. In Australia, recent legislation has required the labeling of palm oil in all food products (“Truth in Labeling” act). Environmental groups have responded extremely favorably to this, but not everyone is pleased. Malaysia, which provides 39% of the world’s palm oil, is up in arms, claiming that Australia is “pandering to a green worldview”. It claims that it is well aware of its need to preserve rainforest, and suggests that it is “doing the right things“. But is it? Do you believe our own USDA when it claims to guarantee “humane slaughter” or certifies the latest Monsanto product as safe? As with anything, I follow the money trail, and am extremely skeptical if it is more cost-efficient (even short-term) to do the wrong thing. (Disclaimer: I have not researched Malaysia’s conservation laws nor the enforcement thereof).

Information on how palm oil production threatens ecosystems is readily available. In a nutshell, palm oil producing trees grow best in areas covered with tropical rainforests. Rainforests are razed to make room for palm plantations; numerous species, including the orangutan, lose their habitat. In the case of the orangutan, many are shot on site — sometimes at the urging of a bounty — and babies are kidnapped and sold into the illegal wildlife trade. Starving animals may wander into villages in search of food; documented cases of villagers beating — sometimes to death — hungry orangutans, have occurred.

So what about “sustainable” palm oil — is it the real thing, or is it just greenwashing, designed to remove guilt and keep us buying product? And is it one of those things that stipulates that compliance will be required at a future date, but meanwhile — whoopsie — we might still be killing a few orangutans? And what about people who say boycotting is the wrong answer because, when done correctly, palm oil IS a fairly “green” crop, and the economies of certain countries depend on it?

Several big brands have jumped on the “sustainable” palm oil bandwagon. Girl Scouts of America comes to mind quickly — its famous cookies have long used palm oil, and the organization recently came under fire for this. Rather than face the ire of angry environmentalists, it claimed to move to “sustainable” palm oil. The Girl Scouts case was high profile, but it is by no means alone — countless big-name companies, including General Mills and Earth Balance, have been guilty of using environmentally destructive palm oil suppliers. Of course, there are some companies which simply don’t give a rat’s ass one way or the other. U.S. ag / food giant Cargill has flatly refused to cut ties with an Indonesian palm oil supplier (Sinar Mas) which has admitted illegally clearing forest. Cargill evidently justifies its relationship by stating that it is encouraged by Sinar Mas’ commitment to “taking corrective actions and strengthening its standard operating procedures”. Load of BS, anyone? Even Nestle and Burger King have severed relationships with this supplier.

So IS “sustainable” the real deal? Certainly, many pro-conservation organizations, have been pushing it, including WWF and many American zoos. To be honest, I’m really not sure, but clearly, there are troubling allegations (and that is why I keep using the word “sustainable” in quotes, BTW). RSPS (Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil) is a body of stakeholders including palm oil producers, processors, traders, retailers, banks and NGOs working to “promote the growth, production, distribution and use of sustainable palm oil”. It is affiliation with this organization that allows manufacturers to use the “sustainable” label. However, as this article points out (and please — if you only click one link on this entire page, make it this one), there is a BIG difference between RSPO certification and RSPO membership, and even certification (the more stringent of the two categories) may be of dubious value. Girl Scouts of America and Nestle, to name a couple, are members only. And, even more troubling, RSPO producing members have been caught red handed engaging in destructive practices. For example, Sinar Mas, the aforementioned supplier with whom Cargill refuses to cut ties, has contributed to “the opening up of deep peatland, deforestation of orangutan habitat, and occurrences of fire hot spots”, per an independent audit. While RSPO may be the best thing we have, it appears that, thus far, there is NO guarantee that products labeled “sustainable” contain only (or any) sustainably grown palm oil.

In the “comments” section, at the end of this article, someone asks how we truly know if ingredients were obtained responsibly, and what we should do. The author, Ashley Shaeffer, says “…as far as brands using sustainable palm oil, we don’t advocate for any of them although there are some women cooperatives in West Africa running responsible small-scale operations. The majority of palm oil comes from unsustainable industrial scale palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. Until there is truly 100% “certified sustainable” palm oil that we can trace back to the plantation of origin available on the market, I generally try to avoid it”. This sounds like good advice to me, based on what I’ve discovered in attempting to research write this article. For now, I will arm myself with a palm oil ingredient identification list, and try to keep my finger on the pulse well enough to know if / when we actually come to the point where we can definitively prove that 100% of the palm oil we are using is truly sustainable.

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