I think I found the god particle, or at least a good contender. Palm oil is currently taking a run at petroleum and corn for the "I'm in everything everywhere at all times" category.
Palm oil's in your cleaning products, shampoo, cookies, lotion, cereal, spreads, pet food, toothpaste - 50 per cent of all packaged goods, in fact.
What's the problemo? Palm oil doesn't set off any alarm bells with most shoppers looking for greener products. Is it natural? Yes. Is it non-toxic? Yes. Is it GMO-free? Surprisingly, yes.
Shame the answer can be yes to all three, yet it's still a potential planet-ravager. As more and more of us munch on, wash with and, depending on where you live, tank up with palm-oil-derived ingredients, rainforests are increasingly being razed, vital peatlands drained, indigenous rights trampled and endangered critters pushed to the brink, all to make way for palm plantations.
Indonesian orangutans in particular made global headlines last month: "Orangutan shot 100 times survives brutal attack [by palm plantation workers] in Borneo," "Orangutans fight back: primate ambushes palm oil plantation worker."
Also in the news last month, thanks to the clearing of carbon-storing rainforests and peatlands for palm: by 2020, Indonesia's palm plantations are due to emit more carbon dioxide then all the fossil fuels currently burned in Canada. That according to researchers at Yale and Stanford.
I started trash-talking palm six years ago but held onto hope that the then newfangled Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, founded by WWF and Unilever, among others, would offer a silver lining. Today, 10 per cent of all palm oil is RSPO-certified, and the Financial Times just declared sustainable palm oil "the new big thing."
Critics, however, worry that "sustainable palm," the way the RSPO is executing it, is really a mirage. According to Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network and even an ex-WWF employee, many RSPO members talk a good green game but aren't meeting RSPO commitments - and even if they were, those commitments fall short of protecting forests and peatlands.
As it stands, RSPO only safeguards High Conservation Value Forests, while the majority of "secondary" forested areas can be cleared along with carbon-rich peatlands.
Just last month, a group of Liberian tribes filed a letter of complaint with the RSPO stating that an RSPO member had cleared and forcefully evicted them from their traditional land.
The UK-based Forest Peoples Programme cites similar land grabs in Cameroon, the Congo, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Says the Forest Peoples Programme, "All this raises questions about whether the RSPO is really able to enforce its standards." Hence, palm oil is on my Mean 15 list of ingredients to avoid (ecoholic.ca/mean15).
By the way, palm may be present even when palm kernel oil or some sort of palmitate is not on the ingredient list. It's often a ghost oil, simply labelled "vegetable oil." Other palm-derived ingredients include sodium laurel/laureth sulphate/sulfoacetate (which can also be from coconuts) as well as glyceryl stearate, stearic acid, steareth-2 and steareth-20.
End result: we've got rainforest destruction in nearly every room of our homes. In the meantime, what to do if you don't fully trust the RSPO? Look for palm-free brands like Ella's Botanicals, Rocky Mountain Soap Company, Hempen Stuff, Mountain Sky Soaps and even Lush.
Or keep an eye out for brands that use fair trade organic palm oil, like Dr. Bronner's (soap bars) or Aloha Bay candles. Certified organic palm isn't always a guarantee against rainforest destruction, says the Rainforest Action Network, but it is an improvement.
If you start combing through your cupboards, you'll find that lots of well-meaning natural, non-toxic indie brands contain palm oil. I recommend sending companies a friendly note letting them know that, yes, even natural ingredients can be unsustainable. Hell, KFC stopped cooking with palm to avoid the heat of scandal. I think indie brands should follow suit.
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