That palm oil in your cookies and soap is ripping up the rain forest and ruining wildlife habitat

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Q. I’ve heard that palm oil is damaging the environment. Is this true?

A. Cookies, chocolate bars, crackers, pie crust – if it’s processed, it probably contains palm oil. The shortening’s popularity has exploded both in Canada and the U.S. since both governments started mandating the labelling of trans fats at the start of 2006.

Thanks to their high melting point and cheap price tag, palm oil and palm kernel oil have replaced partially hydrogenated trans fats in many foods. Ironic, really, considering that many companies moved away from palm oil to trans fats in the 60s because of the saturated fat scare. The problem is, palm oil isn’t just taxing your heart (controversy remains about whether it’s actually all that healthy), but it’s also giving parts of the planet a coronary.

The world’s second-largest oil crop after soy doesn’t only go into food. It’s poured into soaps, creams, detergents, lipstick, gum, candles, animal feed. Hell, it’s even used as a plasticizer in ultra-toxic PVC (vinyl) and can be found in health-store dish detergents. Asian utilities are also eyeing the oil for use in “cleaner, greener” biodiesel. Reuters touted the story under the head “Palms to save Asia.”

Most of it (83 per cent, to be exact) comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, which have over 64,740 square kilometres of palm plantations between the two of them, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s 2005 report on the substance. But those aren’t just planted on vacant land. One study found that 18,130 square kilometres of rain forest was lost to oil palm plantations between 1982 and 99 alone. That ain’t good for the planet’s air quality rain forests suck back about 1 tonne of carbon dioxide per year per hectare and convert it into clean, breathable air.

And, of course, rain forests are full to the treetops with about 1,000 animal species per square kilometre (compared to about 100 in North American forests). Tigers, orangutans, Asian elephants and rhino populations are all stressed by habitat loss. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 80 per cent of orangutan habitat, for instance, has been lost already, and any further encroachment could mean the extinction of the great ape.

Hungry animals looking for food can also be legally killed for trespassing. In Sumatra, six wild elephants died from poisoning in November 2004. At least 64 Sumatran tigers, out of a population of only about 250 in the wild, were killed over a three-year period for the same reason. And almost a third of Borneo’s orangutans (almost 8,000) died in raging fires set to clear rainforest for palm oil plantations in 1997. In fact, the fires were so huge that year that they were one of the world’s main sources of carbon dioxide emissions!

Such fires have since been outlawed in Indonesia and Malaysia, but not before plantation fires destroyed up to 95 per cent of rainforest trees in Indonesia’s Kutai National Park. Chunks of other parks, designed to protect endangered and threatened species, have been cleared for miles of palm.

Environmental problems deepen when you factor in heavy pesticide use, soil erosion and oil factory wastewater seriously polluting local rivers and streams. All for a little oil in our cookies.

On the bright side, some companies, including Unilever, have joined up with NGOs like the WWF to form the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The group is trying to develop environmental standards for palm oil production and hopefully a certification system will be set up.

The bad news? Despite efforts to clean up the dirty oil biz and Indonesia’s 2000 promise not to convert any more forests to palm, last month a new report revealed that Indonesia’s government might not only continue with a 2-million-hectare plantation in Borneo, but it’s also looking to bump up its size to 3 million. We’ll see whether it gets the green light.

In the meantime, organic palm oil is available (Spectrum makes it, but we’ve yet to track it down in Toronto). Or you can avoid it altogether – most crunchy-granola processed foods in health stores do.


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