Vegetable Oil Slick


The fight to encourage local produce sometimes seems futile against big business and globalisation. Despite the rhetoric of democracy, freedom of choice and consumer rights, it is always very obvious how little choice we do have when it comes to spending our own money.

Most of the “brand variety” you see on the supermarket shelves are owned by just a handful of companies – yet we’re led to believe that we’re “making a difference” by making a “choice”. If you buy Green & Black’s organic, fair trade chocolate because you want to make a difference to the “small farmers”, your money goes to Kraft, via Cadbury Schweppes. If you buy Bushells tea because you want to “support Australian”, your money is fed straight into the mouth of the global Unilever monolith.

It happens all across the world, and it’s not really news. What is becoming an issue is the increasing price the Environment pays for the Globalisation of Produce.

Increasing populations in smaller countries mean that food must be sourced from elsewhere – preferably countries with vast tracts of “uninhabited” land. These land-rich countries then suffer the ecological consequences of mass deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and contaminated water supplies, all in the name of feeding a few hundred people living in oblivion on the other side of the world. Then atmospheric CO2 levels rise, we all cry foul, and governments start punishing the taxpayers for driving cars and turning on lights.

For a people so obsessed with supply chains, value chains and distribution networks, it’s amazing that the Government/Business Coalition hasn’t linked the end point with the catalyst. Or maybe they have, and they’re just not telling anyone.

Cheap Brazilian beef has just overtaken palm oil as the largest driver of deforestation in the world. Brazil is the largest (by weight) beef exporter in the world, and the result of this growing industry is the loss of massive areas of Amazon forest to create new pasture.

But this is not palm oil’s cue to exit stage. Palm oil is the cheapest vegetable oil available and is in most of the food and cosmetic products we buy. Even if the ingredients list just states “vegetable oil”, it’s highly likely that the product has palm oil in it.

If you’re not sure what all the fuss with palm oil is about, long story short, the increased demand for palm oil has resulted in massive deforestation across SE Asia, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia (including Borneo). Huge areas of rainforest are destroyed and replaced with oil palm monocultures. This has caused displacement of both local human communities and local wildlife, like orangutans, Sumatran tigers, clouded leopards and Malayan sun bears. If these animals are unfortunate enough to wander into the oil palm plantations, which were once part of their home range, they are killed by plantation workers to stop them destroying any of the valuable product. Ones that aren’t killed end up living very different lives to their nature, hiding in restricted pockets of remnant rainforest, or (in the case of orangutans) in refugee camps run by humans.

Orangutan refugees. (Photo: K. Descovich)

Nature doesn’t obey political borders or cadastral boundaries.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was set up to encourage sustainability in the palm oil market, and some of the biggest palm oil producers and buyers (Unilever, Cargill, Sime Darby, Sinar Mas, Cadbury Schweppes, Nestlé etc.) have jumped onboard. However, there is limited evidence that the system actually benefits the environment, and there are concerns that the accreditation strategy is just disguised damage control for the money-makers (See here and here, and read the Conservation Biology paper here).

In an attempt to halt the devastation in their forests, Indonesia has just placed a 2 year moratorium on new oil palm plantations. Before another tree fell in the forest, the palm oil slick moved to Africa, with the big players in the palm oil industry rushing to buy up land under lush rainforest in Cameroon, Ghana & Liberia. African primates already have their own worries with declining habitat, war, poaching and disease-carrying human “helpers”. Add some palm oil to the ingredients list, and we might be saying farewell to even more of our closest relatives.

It’s not just the environment that suffers from palm oil monocultures, it’s your own health too. Palm oil has the 2nd highest level of saturated fats of all the vegetable oils (coconut oil is the highest), and most heart health organisations recommend steering well-clear of palm oil (or palmolein) products.

So how can we help orangutans, sun bears, tigers and the tropical forests, and also help ourselves? Simple – refuse to buy any food or cosmetic products containing palm oil (if the ingredients lists only unspecified ‘vegetable oil’, it’s a safe bet that palm oil is in there).

© Manu Saunders 2011

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