It’s Not All Bad: Americans and Palm Oil

Climate change and its impact on Americans

Your family carefully sorts your trash and composts table scraps weekly and tries really hard to remember to bring cloth or canvas bags to the grocery store. Some of us drive hybrid cars and support wind power, while others ride a bike to work because they want to reduce their carbon footprint.

We do all of this because we want our children and grandchildren to live on a healthy planet. Going through these inconveniences makes us confident that we are doing all the right things and proud of the message we’re sending our kids. That could be the reason for millions of Americans to feel confused and angry when we feel the full impact of global warming and rising sea levels in the next few years.

Those of us who have had the luxury of time and who have been paying attention have done everything we can to stall the steady rise of earth’s temperature, but many of us remain unaware that we all support one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. President Obama said that climate change is one of the greatest threats facing the world and said, “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

But who would have thought that one of the greatest causes of carbon emission is something found in most rooms of our homes? Who would have thought that one of the greatest threats to our well being comes from an Indonesian rainforest? Most Americans can’t even locate Indonesia on a map, and yet about 15 percent of global carbon pollution comes from deforestation – more than the emissions produced from all the cars, buses, trains and airplanes in the world.

It feels as if we are asleep at the wheel, and but sadly we have slept through the alarm, and it is long past the time for America to wake up.

Photo Courtesy of Caroline Braker.
Photo Courtesy of Caroline Braker.

What the heck is Palm Oil?

The oil of palm is a highly versatile, high-yield vegetable oil that is widely used in products, including baked goods, breakfast cereals, cosmetics, personal care and cleaning products; in fact, 51 percent of everything in American stores contains it. It is obtained from the fruit of the oil palm tree and is the most consumed edible oil today. Because of its versatility, the demand worldwide has tripled over the last few decades.

So what is the problem with palm oil? 

The problem with palm oil is the way in which it is farmed and manufactured. Current estimates indicate 90 percent of the rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia will be replaced by palm oil plantations unless drastic action is taken to find ways of producing it sustainably.

The production of palm oil has given rise to deforestation, plant and animal extinctions, child labor, and land grabs. This led to the creation of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2003 to address these big issues head on. The RSPO was an initiative of  the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), who recognized the need to  address some of the larger problems with palm oil.

The standards for sustainable palm oil at the RSPO were set very high. In fact, if applied fully, it could make palm oil one of the most eco-friendly options for vegetable oils in the world. The problem, however, is that the standards are not mandatory for their members. This has led to mass confusion of which RSPO members are working sustainably and which are merely using it to divert criticism.

Environmental groups – including its own founder, the WWF – have declared it a failure, and the WWF went on to join a new certification body, the Palm Oil Innovation Group, in 2013.

Photo Courtesy of Caroline Braker.
Photo Courtesy of Caroline Braker.

What can Americans do then?

We, as Americans with the ability to make an impact – negatively or positively – on palm oil production policies, must make a statement against palm oil that is causing so much global warming. I have created a petition asking Senate to introduce legislation to stop the imports of conventional palm oil – the cause of all that green house gas emissions.

We will not ask for an outright ban, as we understand the jobs of many poor workers in Indonesia and Malaysia depend on palm oil production. We must, however, exercise our own rights for a healthy future for our children and tell these palm oil companies in clear terms that we will not let polluting products to cross our border.

The United Kingdom has created a policy on palm oil use as a government, and this has led to palm oil companies scrambling to lighten their environmental impact. The European Union has made it mandatory to label clearly all products containing palm oil. The expectation there is that any product with palm oil will suffer a drop in sales as Europeans are more aware of the destruction caused by conventional palm oil.

It’s time America spoke up.

To celebrate the first ever World Orangutan Day on August 19, 2013, I will be hand delivering my petition to my senator, Maria Cantwell (D-WA), to introduce legislation to control the imports of palm oil.

You can help by signing the petition here and by writing your own letters to your senator.

— LeAnn Fox, Palm Oil Consumer Action

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