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Tigers, Whole Foods, Global Warming & Orangutans. What’s the Link?

March 1st, 2009. By Dave Oei. 35,581 views.
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Whole Foods, Tigers, Global Warming & Orangutans. What’s the Link?  Photo by Dave Watts of Birdlife International.

Tigers, Whole Foods, Global Warming & Orangutans. What's the Link? Photo by Dave Watts.

Palm oil.

Palm what?

If you pay as little attention to your food as I do then you’re probably just as surprised as I am that: 1) Some palm trees make edible fruit; and 2) Some of this fruit is linked to endangered species destruction and deforestation.

It so happens that for the last 50 years or so, palm oil has been making head-ways into the foods we eat.  It’s also in bio-fuels we burn and cosmetics some of you may use.  Recently, there’s been a huge push for the introduction of palm oil in U.S. foods because of new trans-fat reporting requirements.  Because palm oil doesn’t have any, it’s been used as a choice to replace non-trans-fat-free shortening.

And while we are collectively healthier for eating less trans-fat, there are measurable global consequences that have resulted from this relatively tiny shift in our dietary habits.  Namely, deforestation on a vast scale and threatened species nearing extinction.

Much of this palm oil is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia.  According to the Associated Press, the amount of deforestation needed to accommodate the growth in palm oil plantations is on the order of 670,000 acres every year.  Or, to put that into perspective, it’s an area of forest that’s cleared and replaced with palms that’s greater in size than the cities of Los Angeles and New York (including all 5 boroughs) combined.  Every year.

That’s a lot.

As a result of the forest clearing, there have been increasing incidents of sumatran tiger incursions with forest villagers, and consequently, deaths on both sides.  Naturally that’s very unfortunate both ways, but considering there are likely less than 1000 of these tigers left, it’s easier to feel sorry for the tigers.  But considering the high rate of poverty in Indonesia, I’d also hate to be that mauled logger who was only trying to pay the bills.

Other prominent victims include the orangutan and pygmy elephant.  Both rely on the native forest habitat for survival, but the pygmy elephant has been specifically targeted because they thrive on palm fruit.  As you can imagine, that doesn’t make palm plantation owners too happy.

Orangutans are also frequently cited as victims, an assertion flatly rejected by the American Palm Oil Council, an association of palm oil developers, producers, refiners, etc…  But there is one glaring problem with the APOC’s arguments – they focus to absolve Malaysia producers of any wrongdoing.  But they fail to mention Indonesia at all in their counterpoint, the other very large palm oil producer.  I wonder why.

Which brings us to global warming.  One could argue that replacing forests with productive palm trees is at worst a carbon-neutral event.  Perhaps.  Yet it remains to be tested or demonstrated.  But replacing native peatland with palm trees almost certainly is not.  And unfortunately, the world will have to face the consequences of this as a result of the Indonesian government’s February 2009 decision to lift a ban to replace peatland with palm plantations.  Estimates of carbon released over the next few years as a result of this is…staggering.

Is there a silver lining anywhere in this story?!  Yes, well, maybe.  Whole Foods announced earlier this month that it will only sell palm oil obtained through sustainable means in its products starting in 2012.  Everything else will be banned.  Surely a bold move.  Though I can’t figure out why it will take three years to implement this ecologically-minded idea.

It should be as easy as saying, “Ok, I don’t want to buy any more of your palm oil, I’ll buy this other palm oil instead.”  Or, perhaps Whole Foods realizes the grim truth – doing the “right” thing is very hard.  Which in turn does not bode well for the average consumer: If Whole Foods is going to have a tough time telling which palm oil producer is good and which isn’t, how are we supposed to know?

Biology, Business and Politics, Featured Articles, Global Science

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