When it comes to palm oil—a saturated vegetable oil that gives many packaged food items a creamier consistency—there's a lot more than meets the eye. The seemingly benign (though certainly not healthy) ingredient you'll find in cheat-day treats like Nutella, chips, and candies is mired in controversy and environmental concerns.
Rain forests have been destroyed in order to make way for the tropical crop in recent years, which has funneled carbon dioxide into the air and left endangered animals without a habitat. Indonesia, Malaysia, and parts of Southeast Asia are taking a major hit, with their elephant and orangutan populations dipping rapidly over the past decade. If current rates of tropical deforestation continue, the world’s rain forests will vanish within 100 years, NASA projects.
If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
A new survey shows that many food companies in Singapore and Malaysia are refusing to disclose where they got their palm oil, raising some red flags about their values. But at the same time, many players are involved in bringing palm oil from tree to shelf, so some companies may be unknowingly feeding into deforestation by not keeping a tight enough grip on their supply chains. This means that harmful palm oil sourcing practices are harder to stop than you might think. Even with some incredible new developments in satellite imagery, it's not possible to keep tabs on every inch of the world's forests at all times, so the industry is difficult to regulate and lawbreakers difficult to reprimand. Sometimes, the only ones who can hear a tree fall in an empty forest are the ones chopping it down.
The simple ways you can make a difference.
While the destruction of trees in faraway lands may feel like a difficult issue to wrap your head around, there are actions you can take as a consumer to make sure you're not playing into it. If you're into wellness, chances are you're not digging into packaged treats that have palm oil all that often anyway, so the first thing you might want to do is stop using it altogether, but this is a) a really hard thing to do (it's in nearly 50 percent of packaged goods, as well as some of our beauty supplies), and b) not all that helpful. If enough people turned down palm oil, it would probably be replaced with another veggie-based oil, meaning more land that would need to be cleared for production.
If managed properly, the palm oil plantations that exist today can support the local economy. "For every ton of palm oil you take out of the global supply chain, you need to add two and a half hectares of soy to replace that crop. It's so efficient from a land use perspective," Dave McLaughlin, the senior vice president of sustainable food at World Wildlife Fund (which has done extensive work to regulate the industry), explains to mbg.
McLaughlin recommends that consumers who want to make a difference do two simple things: look for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) label on products that contain palm oil, and be vocal with brands when you don't see one. "Having that voice and letting the companies know what the consumers want is really important," he says.
Right now, only 10 percent of palm oil farms are currently certified by the RSPO. Palm oil can only bear this label (a green palm tree) if an auditor has visited its farm and compiled a report deeming it sustainable. It defines a sustainable operation as one that maintains fair working conditions, protects local rights (six farmers were killed in a brutal palm oil dispute earlier this month), didn't clear any rain forests to get started, and follows practices that preserve nearby wildlife.
Thankfully, companies in the United States continue to sign on to and uphold the label, and the latest WWF report found that on average they met their commitments to source sustainable palm oil 82 percent of the time. There's still room to grow, but the progress is there, and more informed and vocal consumers can only help.
Now that you know what to look for on the (hopefully rare!) occasion you pick up packaged food, it's time to check out what meat labels should be on your radar.