In which science writer Jason G. Goldman explores the monoculture of palm oil and how the consumer choices we make during the candy buying season can make a real difference to orangutans.
Wild orangutans are losing their habitat as the rainforests in which they live are being cleared to produce timber and to expand palm oil plantations. The economics are actually fairly simple: when people buy products that contain palm oil, demand for those products go up. Plantations expand to compensate, which means that rainforest destruction accelerates.
The solution seems pretty simple, right? Stop buying products with palm oil in it. The problem is that even the savviest, most conservation-minded of shoppers can be fooled. That’s because palm oil can be in a product even if the ingredients list doesn’t say so. It can be listed simple as “vegetable oil,” or as something like “sodium lauryl sulfate” or “sodium laureth sulfate.”
The thing is, it isn’t that palm oil itself is bad. Conservation International points out it’s actually got higher yields than other edible oils, meaning that more oil can be produced in the same plot of land than for other types of plants. While palm oil represents nearly forty percent of the world’s edible oil, it’s grown on just five percent of the land dedicated to oilseed crops. Palm oil production employs more than six million people around the world. Both of these are good things.
The problem is that it’s being farmed in the wrong places. And while orangutans are the most charismatic, heart-wrenching way to promote the problem, deforestation goes much farther than just ape conservation. It is one of the leading drivers of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, for one thing. In addition, rainforests help to regulate weather patterns; they protect local communities from storms and floods and maintain healthy wetlands, which provide water for communities and agricultural efforts downstream. Remove the forest, and the whole ecosystem comes down like a house of cards. And it’s not just the orangutans who suffer, it’s us.
How can you help?
It isn’t easy to simply eschew all products that contain palm oil, partly because it’s estimated to be used in more than half of all processed supermarket items in the US, including cosmetics, and partly because a move towards sustainable palm oil wouldn’t be served by a complete rejection of all products containing it. Instead, you could support those companies that have joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Lucky for you, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has created a handy app called the “Palm Oil Shopping Guide” that will help you discern which products are orangutan-friendly and which aren’t.
This excerpt from an article appeared in animals.io9.com and is courtesy of Jason G. Goldman. It can be read in its entirety here.