What the Future of Palm Oil Means for the Planet
“There’s a rang-tan in my bedroom, and I don’t know what to do…” This is the opening line of an animated short from Greenpeace, re-purposed as an advertisement for the supermarket chain Iceland. The tone of the commercial is bright and whimsical with narration by actress Emma Thompson.
However, the ad soon takes a startling turn when the little girl asks why the orangutan appeared in her bedroom. “There’s a human in my forest, and I don’t know what to do. He destroyed all of our trees for your food and your shampoo. There’s a human in my forest, and I don’t know what to do…”
At the time of its release, the advertisement received backlash from regulators over political impartiality rules. Regardless, it facilitated a global discussion over a significant and controversial issue. This simple commercial with a cartoon orangutan touched on a problem that wasn’t as familiar to viewers.
In truth, it’s easy to dismiss something as unassuming as palm oil as harmless or unimportant. As part of the long list of environmental catastrophes competing for your attention, it would rank low, more likely than not. Recently, however, the subject has seen greater attention, and it’s easy to understand why.
The Extent of the Problem
As context, palm oil is a variety of vegetable oil from the fruit and seeds of the oil palm tree. Though the plant itself is native to West Africa, 86% of the world’s supply comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. Enormous plantations in these countries produce about 66 million tonnes of palm oil every year.
Of course, this number is nothing too unsettling, as the demand for palm oil is immense. It only makes sense, since it’s an ingredient in shampoo, lipstick, candles, bread, chocolate and a diverse variety of other products. In fact, about 50% of the packaged goods sold in your local grocery store contain palm oil.
The problem is only evident when you look at palm oil plantations. The oil palm tree grows well in low-lying, tropical regions, which are often the location of rainforests and peatlands. These are the natural habits of a whole host of endangered species, like rhinos, tigers and orangutans.
Concerning the scale of the issue, palm oil plantations cover an area approximately one-third the size of Germany. This unchecked expansion of palm oil development has caused “green deserts” where animal and plant populations can’t thrive, leading to the rapid extinction of vulnerable species.
That said, the subject isn’t as black-and-white as it first appears.
Current practices with palm oil plantations are destructive to the environment, that’s inarguable. The palm oil industry has contributed to deforestation, the displacement of indigenous peoples, the death of endangered species and massive amounts of carbon emissions. However, the alternative may prove worse.
No crop can yield even a third as much oil per acre as the oil palm tree. More than this, it requires far fewer chemical fertilisers and pesticides than any other oil source like corn or coconut. As Katie McCoy of the Carbon Disclosure Project said, boycotting palm oil “…would mean shifting problems onto another commodity.”
So what’s the solution? How should informed consumers act when half of the packaged goods in their grocery store contain palm oil? Fortunately, organisations like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil have made it their mission to improve sustainability in multiple areas of the palm oil industry.
The world’s leading food companies have also responded to the palm oil controversy. Kellogg’s, Unilever, Gerber, PepsiCo, Safeway, General Mills and Dunkin’ Donuts all received high ratings on the 2015 sustainable palm oil scorecard from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Progress continues.
With the advertisement from Greenpeace, vocal environmentalists and increasing coverage of the issue, more and more people are learning about the consequences of their consumption. Though the fight is far from over, the fact that it’s gained attention is a victory in itself.
Make a Difference
“There’s a human in my forest, and I don’t know what to do…”
The “rang-tan” in the animated short represents a very real problem, and those who are aware of the issue — and willing to act — can effect change. It starts with advocating for sustainability, spreading awareness and demanding change. That change is possible, but only through the collective effort of companies, organisations and individuals who are determined to make a difference.