By: Jack M.
The orangutan lives exclusively in Indonesia and Malaysia, and according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, this magnificent animal has been categorized as critically endangered, which means it faces a very high risk of extinction. And the main reason for this threat of extinction is simple: its natural habitat, the old-growth forest, is being destroyed and replanted with tens of millions of acres of the oil palm tree.
The oil palm tree is the only source of palm oil, an edible oil that’s used in hundreds of products that we all use and consume every day. Pizza crust, cookies, toothpaste, lipstick, soap, shampoo, ice cream, chocolate and mayonnaise are just a few of the consumer items that use palm oil. In and of itself, palm oil is no more or no less a cause for concern than any other commercially-produced oil; in fact it is a good source of calories, vitamins and minerals. And it’s used in many cultures as the principal cooking oil. The real problem lies in the fact that more than 85 percent of the world’s supply comes from two countries – Indonesia and Malaysia, the home of the orangutan – and these two nations have been putting profits before good stewardship of the land.
As a processing ingredient and cooking product, palm oil is the least expensive oil to produce, harvest and refine, making it a very attractive option for growers and manufacturers of that same toothpaste, lipstick and pizza. The WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) has reported a significant demand for palm oil, and this demand is expected to double, or even triple, by the year 2050, with countries like Indonesia being only too eager to accommodate this demand, destroying existing old-growth forests in the process, and having the land replanted with the oil palm tree. Tens of millions of acres of natural forest have already been sacrificed, and tens of millions more acres are yet to be sacrificed. And in addition to the environmental dangers posed by the deforestation and the displacement of local communities, the survival of the critically-endangered Sumatran orangutan and other species is at stake.
However, working alongside the WWF are organizations like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which are trying to come to the rescue of the forests and the orangutans. Established in 2004, the RSPO has one mandate: to establish and maintain an environment and marketplace for what they call Sustainable Palm Oil. “Sustainable”, here, is key: the RSPO is not promoting the replacement of palm oil with another oil, because the demand for other oils like canola and sunflower would rapidly increase. It makes little sense to completely eradicate the world’s supply of palm oil. In fact, despite its high demand and potential for destruction, there are hundreds of thousands of people in places like India and Malaysia whose livelihoods depend entirely on the oil palm tree. The UCS has issued an information report to help consumers educate themselves. For a short video on the topic, click here.
There are better methods of production that not only keep the supply-demand chain in equilibrium, but can go a long way in preserving primary forests, sensitive ecosystems, and local community and cultural needs. The RSPO has implemented voluntary standards to be followed by growers, processors and traders of palm oil, for which they receive worldwide recognition. And while the UCS has suggested that the RSPO’s guidelines fall short of the ideal solution, both organizations are pulling in the same direction. If you want to avoid products with palm oil, check out the list of ingredients, keeping in mind that some manufacturers and processors play a bit of a game in how palm oil is actually defined—it can appear on labels under many guises (for a complete list, take a look here). And check out the websites of the RSPO and the UCS (and others, like this one or this one) for information on corporations and products that are contributing in their own individual ways to the preservation of our planet’s forests. The ultimate fate of the planet’s old-growth forests, however, lies with us, the consumers.