Palm Oil Plantations Accelerate Tropical Deforestation

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By Elena Day

When I was 13 years old in 1964 I visited the New York World’s Fair. The song “It’s a Small World (After All)” reverberated over and over in my brain after visiting the ride Disney debuted at the fair that is now replicated in all Disney theme parks globally. The fair’s theme was “Peace through Understanding” dedicated to “Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe and Expanding Universe.” (I believe women’s achievements were minimalized at the time.) In ’64 there was a lot of hope in the air.

In 2015 we haven’t arrived at the “peace” part of the theme, but no one can deny that the “shrinking globe”—which I interpret to mean globalization—is far advanced. However, it didn’t turn out the way I envisioned as a young teenager.

Globalization has opened to our current human population a Pandora’s box of problems. Today, global/multinational corporations have limited and standardized consumers’ technological options, energy choices/distribution, and available foodstuffs. A global model of agriculture has been evolving (and is in place) that is environmentally destructive, threatens biodiversity, bankrupts smaller farmers, depresses farm laborers wages, uses immeasurable amounts of chemical fertilizers, poisonous pesticides and insecticides, and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Palm oil is an apt example of a food product almost unknown 25 years ago that is now mono-cropped and threatens rainforests and endangered species in Southeast Asia. Given that demand for palm oil is projected to double by 2030 and triple by 2050, rainforests in Africa and South and Central America may be at risk as well.

Palm oil was traditionally used for cooking in tropical West Africa. European traders brought it to Europe as a cooking oil. British traders sought it as an industrial lubricant beginning in the Industrial Revolution. The African oil palm tree, Elaeis guineensi, was introduced by the Dutch to Indonesia and the British to Malaysia in the mid and late 19th century.* It was originally planted as an ornamental. In the late 1800s both Lever Brothers (now Unilever) and Colgate began production of palm oil soaps. These were marketed as Sunlight and Palmolive respectively.

Beginning in the 1970s both Malaysia and Indonesia increased palm oil plantings in an effort to lift rural populations out of poverty. Rainforests were leveled at an accelerated rate to make way for palm oil trees in the 1990s. Multinationals like Cargill invested in palm oil plantations. (Cargill is the world’s largest grain trader. It owns grain terminals, cargo ships, storage facilities and cattle feedlots. I noticed its name on the entrances to every other farm on Rte. 340 from north of Luray to Elkton.) In 1995 Cargill acquired its first palm plantation in Indonesia. By 2005 it had three large plantations as well as a processing facility in Papua New Guinea. Other multinationals bought the palm oil for consumer products.

Today Malaysia and Indonesia produce 85 percent of the world’s palm oil.

Between 1990 and 2010, 3.5 million hectares of tropical rainforest in Indonesia were replaced by palm oil plantations. (One hectare is 2.47 acres, so that is 8.6 million acres.) Indonesia overtook Brazil as the number one rainforest destroyer in 2012. It has also distinguished itself as the third largest emitter of CO2 after the United States and China.

Whether the clearing method is slash and burn or mechanical uprooting, animal species are decimated and plant biodiversity is lost. One-third of the animal species, including Sumatra’s tigers, rhinos, elephants, and orangutans, are endangered. The Sumatran orangutan has lost 90 percent of its habitat. Orangutans are also threatened on Malaysia’s island of Borneo. Poachers are relatively unmonitored and have increased access into intact rainforest areas because of palm oil plantation roads. Palm oil trees are thirsty for water and palm oil processing facilities routinely contaminate water sources with their waste. Plantations in general have a poor record regarding worker protections from applications of herbicides such as Paraquat.

In 1992, in response to concerns regarding rainforest destruction and global warming, Malaysia agreed to limit its deforestation to 50 percent of its original tree cover. Progress implementing this pledge has been slow.

Currently 50 million tons of palm oil are produced annually. Palm oil constitutes 30 percent of the world’s vegetable oil. It is included in baked goods and household products such as shampoo, cosmetics, cleaning agents and toothpaste.

Palm oil is cheap and the trees are high-yielding. It is a saturated fat. Unsaturated and trans fats have lost favor and have been implicated in coronary artery disease. Saturated fats like palm oil, lard (amazing) and completely hydrogenated fats are preferable in those fast and fried and convenience foods Americans consume, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In 2013 the FDA announced its intention to ban/phase out all trans fats from the American diet. The American Soybean Association (ASA) immediately protested. ASA includes all the usual cheerleaders for genetically modified (GM) soybeans —Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, Bayer, Syngenta, and German chemical giant BASF. According to Food and Water Watch, these multinationals don’t want to lose market share until GM soybeans (DuPont Plenish and Monsanto Vistive) that have been engineered to have less saturated fat than palm oil have replaced current GM cultivars.

In 2004 the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was formed. It has not been very effective to date in promoting “sustainability” or curbing /reversing the negatives of this new mono-cropping disaster. A Dec. 2014 article in Fortune magazine reported that in response to consumer pressure and shortly after the UN climate conference in New York this past September, Cargill CEO David MacLennan pledged to green his company’s palm oil. Unilever and Nestle’s strengthened their green commitment to sustainable palm oil as well. Twenty other companies, including Kellogg’s and Proctor & Gamble, committed to zero deforestation in their consumer products. Thirty other companies including McDonald’s and Walmart have agreed to eliminate deforestation from their supply chain by 2020. One may ask why not 2015? I will be anxious to hear that forthcoming monitoring systems are effective in enforcing palm oil “greening.”

Consumer concerns have become global. Consumers have integrated their health concerns into those of environmentalists and farm laborers to restore our fragile planet.

I’ll stop here. My optimism remains limited.

February is the time to start lettuces and Brassicas.

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