Changing Planet

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.

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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  • Robert Hii

    Thank you for your continued posts on the subject!

    There are good producers of palm oil which needs to be supported. We’ve seen a big increase in demand for truly sustainable palm oil in the UK since that government announced that it would only use sustainable palm oil in its products or purchases.

    Indeed, it is time for America to do the same!

  • christine olle

    It is time America woke up – palm oil is in everything and it is killing the Earth.

  • R. G. Pape

    Yes ending the production practices of conventional palm oil is important. Telling people not to use it is one way, but also telling ’em who and where the ethical producers are will be a useful and positive informative thing to do.

  • togar

    In 2011, Indonesian Government has created Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) which is mandatory for all palm oil plantations in Indonesia by 2015. As of today there are about 20s companies already certified and another 40s are in the process of getting the certificates (up to September 2013). The number of plantations getting this certificates will be growing faster to meet the 2015 deadline. And further, as far as I know, getting ISPO certificate is harder than RSPO. RSPO is a voluntary, ISPO is mandatory.
    This show that we, in Indonesia, also concern about the global issues and try our best to manage it.

  • Eric

    Focus shouldn’t be on palm oil alone.

    Soy bean has an equally negative environmental impact by destroying the precious Amazon rainforest and causing countless species to go extinct.

  • Andy Green

    WWF have NOT declared RSPO a faliure and POIG is NOT a certification body. It is an organisation looking atimproving RPSO standards

  • Andy Green

    ISPO is NOT harder to obtain than RSPO, clear benchmarking has been done and there is NO ONWARD SUPPLY CHAIN CERTIFICATION so NO WAY TO TRACE IT. Nice try Togar

  • don grubba

    Past RSPO Exec Board member + past Chair of trade & traceability WG of RSPO.
    ISPO is not a more difficult standard than RSPO. Not even close. WWF has not left RSPO. AG’s comments correct on both accounts. Soy, corn/maize, rapeseed/canola also a problem no matter where grown (low productivity, pest/fert use, + SA deforestation for soy). Banning palm not the answer as millions of people in Indo/Mal are employed in sector. Many at sustenance levels for families. Demand for Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) is currently a big issue. Only ~50% of available supply is being purchased globally. Pressure on Congress given their lack of interest in doing anything I feel is futile. Better to apply pressure to end users in US and globally to only use RSPO .CSPO.

  • Simon

    Some important information in this article which is incorrect:

    ‘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′ – Not true, the WWF continues to work with and support the RSPO around the globe, yes they would like to see the standard improved and the rate of change to be sped up. Also the POIG is not a certification body!! It’s a group, supported by growers (one of which is from Indonesia, none from Malaysia) who by reinforcing the RSPO standard want to see if they can improve it. This shows what change the RSPO movement has brought to the market, but if the growers are not located in the countries and regions where the CSR issues are – what is going to change! The WWF is working with this project group, the WWF is involved in many projects!

    I would re-read the UK government policy as it clearly states ‘working towards 100%’. This has not been the major driver in the UK, in fact it’s been industry itself which has taken the lead.

    I would also re-read the EU label regulation regarding vegetable oil. This does not cover ALL PRODUCTS, only food. Vital as you earlier quote the 50% of every product sat on the shelve!

    Consider & debate:

    Sales of Kit Kats continue to rise despite over a million views of the Greenpeace youtube video!

    Is the western retail market really the big volume user of palm oil ?

    How many consumers study each bit of food packing during their weekly shop? How many logos do we already have on packaging, does anyone understand them ?

    How many consumers will ask in restaurants ‘Does any of your food contain palm oil’ ! Did your meat get fed on palm kernel meal, can you prove what you say ?

    Will consumers stop washing with soap in public restrooms because the gel may contain palm oil? Will hotel chains be bombarded with questions, quests refusing to check in?

    The whole of Western Europe & North America is 100% sustainable palm oil – then what? 88% is grown in the same unsustainable way – it’s a global issue!

    Consumers in the developed world don’t buy palm oil! How can you change the buying behavior of something you don’t buy?

  • Nancy Tormay

    So what solution is Simon proposing? It’s all too hard so in the meantime let a organisations profiteer and allow manufacturers to make as much money as they can by buying the cheapest oil available?

  • Simon

    Nancy, the available solutions very much depend on what you are trying to achieve? Yes organisations are there to make profit for shareholders & owners! If sustainable strategies make business sense in terms of long term growth you will start to see positive change. I personally believe promoting shareholder/owner value will bring rapid and profound change, or do we wait for mass consumer buying behaviour change for a product they can’t see. If this article wasn’t filled with a raft of confused and poorly researched information the comments may have been more positive. .

  • Mary Dickersonl

    I have wondered over the last year or so why bread, biscuits and chocolate now taste so disgusting. Chocolate used to contain cocoa butter but this has been replaced by palm oils such a shame to ruin something that has been a treat for millions of people for centuries. Now everything tastes the same!

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