Thursday, January 6, 2011

Planting for Oil

While it may look like we’re headed off to a tropical beach, or perhaps down Palm Drive (go Stanford!), this is sadly not the case. Meet the oil palm, the source of both palm and palm kernel oil – funny how that works.

Have you eaten an oreo lately? Maybe not, but what about a granola bar? Cereal? Peanut butter? More and more brands of processed food – cookies, crackers, candy bars, margarine – are using palm oil as a saturated fat and preservative. It has replaced hydrogenated soybean oil in many products, which is perhaps better, if not fantastic, for your health. While it contains antioxidants, carotenoids, and no cholesterol, it is still a saturated fat and still found in heavily processed foods.

Palm oil has another little dark secret. It happens to be a major driver of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, spurring on the clear-cutting of large swaths of rainforest and planting of hectares upon hectares of monoculture oil palms. Like rainforest beef before it, palm oil (and the companies that use it) has received a lot of bad press lately. Both Nestle and Unilever underwent brutal beatings by Green Peace ad campaigns

Have a break? from Greenpeace UK on Vimeo.

Militant environmental groups are not the only ones paying heed to the plight of Indonesian rainforests, though. Big business, such as Cargill, General Mills, and the behemoth – Walmart – are starting to make some noise. They are committing to sourcing their oil with sustainable certifications, the most prominent coming from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Best management practices include everything from enhancing soil fertility and biodiversity to supporting local livelihoods.

Unlike other products I’ve discussed, like coffee and cocoa, certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) is not going to be labeled and readily apparent. Using it is a decision within the supply chain of manufacturers, such as Walmart using only CSPO for its private label by 2015. So what can you as a consumer do? For one, eat less processed foods. And if you just can’t give up those cookies (or that dark chocolate peanut butter, mmm…), then be a discerning customer, do your homework, and find out where the palm oil comes from.

For some, like my peanut butter, you can just go to their website. Search RSPO’s list of members. Or if all else fails, email or call up the company and get the scoop. The more these companies are confronted with consumer demand and concern, the more likely it is we will see some real change

Read the latest on Mongabay.

There is a wealth of info out there on palm oil right now, so if something interests you, leave a comment and I will try to hook you up!

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