How an Ingredient Found in Everything from Chocolate to Chips Is Causing Massive Environmental Destruction

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The production of palm oil, the common ingredient in an astounding number of products, is causing deforestation, global warming emissions and a loss of biodiversity.

The aisles of any American grocery store, whether it’s a big-box behemoth or a cramped urban bodega, are filled with enough packaged goods to satiate nearly every consumer demand and impulse. But behind the neatly stocked shelves and cheery in-store commercials lurks a dirty secret concerning the dramatic and harmful global impact of the products we buy.

The common ingredient in an astounding number of products — from laundry detergent and chips to soap, candy and makeup — is palm oil. Grown primarily in Indonesia, palm farms are causing alarming rates of deforestation and displacement of indigenous peoples, and are posing a serious threat to local biodiversity. Far from a localized problem, the consequences of palm oil production are international in scope; according to the World Bank, Indonesia is the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, with a whopping 80 percent of its emissions being due to deforestation. And while six million hectares of land in the country have already been converted to palm plantations, a fight is now raging to protect the remaining forests, mainly on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

Most of the big-name global consumer giants — Cargill, Nestlé, Pepsi, Kraft and Proctor & Gamble, to name a few — are entangled in the palm oil market. In fact, until this past Monday Nestlé was attempting to fend off a visible Greenpeace-led consumer campaign that highlighted the company’s complicity in massive deforestation in Southeast Asia. As Rolf Skar, Greenpeace USA’s senior forestry campaigner noted, the group is “telling people to not eat foods driving species to extinction and to climate change just for cooking oil. It’s not a cop-out. The point is that why are we destroying rainforests to eat this?” The organization’s message resonated with consumers worldwide as it built a successful campaign to pressure Nestlé to change its palm oil policies.

In a dramatic turn of events, Nestlé announced Monday that it would use only sustainable palm oil by 2015; that is, palm oil produced under conditions that do not displace local inhabitants, and that protect peatlands and forests and follow local laws. This new company policy will follow the guidelines of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a voluntary body comprised of corporations, palm producers and environmental groups. Although the conglomerate purchases less than 1 percent of total worldwide palm oil, its international clout could encourage others to join its ranks and create a dramatic shift in the industry.

After years of ignored efforts, Greenpeace turned up the heat in the past few months, and through the use of creative online and in-person stunts brought Nestlé to its knees with a public relations headache. The environmental group directed supporters worldwide to post complaints on the company’s Facebook page and circulate a critical YouTube video. Nestlé eventually surrendered, after its efforts to remove the unflattering video from YouTube were squashed when it was quickly reposted on Vimeo, another video sharing site.

In an era when traditional marketing and public relations firms are battling against younger, hipper, digitally savvy foes, there were many lessons here for those who supported Nestlé’s approach, which backfired. “A lot of media started talking about the campaign as a new era in campaigning and perhaps a cautionary tale for companies that are wading into a new world of online social networks,” noted Skar. Greenpeace’s shrewd web tactics helped push its campaign into the mainstream media and became a dramatic bargaining tool in its push against the company.

Of course, while Greenpeace succeeded in making Nestlé the poster-child of its palm oil campaign, the situation is inevitably more complicated.

The world of palm oil production is a land-grabbing, opaque, unregulated and murky (the United Nations estimates that 73-88 percent of all logging in Indonesia is illegal) web of international companies creating an environmental nightmare that is dramatically altering the landscape of Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. Globally, deforestation accounts for 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, and Indonesia is the worst contributor. Looking at aerial photos of the country (which has the fourth fastest rate of deforestation worldwide), the effects are easy to see. Vast swaths of the peatlands and rainforests, previously among the most biologically diverse and carbon rich regions in the world, have been reduced to biological deserts.

The Dutch first established palm oil plantations in the mid-19th century on the island of Java, and the British on what is now Malaysia. However, the massive growth in palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia occurred only in the past 30 years, as global demand skyrocketed. On the ground level, endangered species like orangutans and Sumatran tigers, not to mention a vast array of flora, have vanished in the wake of mono-crop palm plantations. Countless indigenous human forest dwellers and local communities have been displaced. In addition to clear-cutting rainforests, palm plantations are also established on peatlands, which house an enormous amount of carbon content. Destroying peatlands to create palm plantations is a major source of global greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention a significant bargaining chip in international climate discussions. Here’s why:

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