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A Crop of Inextinguishable Regrets: The Push for More Sustainable Palm Oil Farming

3/18/2014 12:00:00 AM

Tags: palm oil, Union of Concerned Scientists, deforestation, global warming, Alec Weaver

palm plantationPick up the nearest consumer product lying around and take a look at its ingredients. Chances are somewhere on that list you’ll find palm oil or palm kernel oil. That’s because as the worlds most widely used vegetable oil, palm oil finds its way into a staggering number of consumables. However, our demand for palm oil has a devastating effect on the local ecosystems in which it is harvested and contributes to global warming. In fact, according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, tropical deforestation alone causes 10 percent of all global carbon emissions.

Here’s the long and short of it. As it stands, the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil has set standards to try and make palm oil production more sustainable, however these standards fall short. Many oil producers are still using techniques that cause deforestation, peat land destruction and the release of drastic amounts of carbon emissions. One such technique is the draining of peat lands to make way for palm plantations. Once the land is dry, the carbon-rich peat is exposed to oxygen causing it to decompose and release its stored carbon into the atmosphere; but the carbon emissions don’t stop there. After the land is dried, the carbon-laden peat is burned off, releasing even more carbon in a process that can take up to a few months!

The effects of current palm-harvesting practices aren’t limited to the environment. The health of those who live in the region is also at risk. With the smoke from peat-fires invading nearby towns and villages, these regions have seen a rise in respiratory problems. In many of the regions where palm is harvested for oil, workers receive low wages, often have poor working conditions, or are forced into labor. The region’s lax laws on child labor also invite abuse. These practices have proved devastating to local wildlife, such as the Sumatran Orangutan.

However, all is not lost. Palm oil and palm kernel oil can be produced in an environmentally friendly fashion. In fact, many companies are now reforming the way that they work with palm oil. Brands like Nestle, Unilever and L’Oréal, as well as Golden-Agri Resources (the second largest palm oil producer) and Wilmar International (the largest palm oil trader) have already made commitments to be more transparent with their palm oil sourcing and to only do business with those who harvest in a sustainable way and treat employees ethically. Curious to see how your favorite brands hold up? Check out the Union of Concerned Scientist’s palm oil scorecard, or send a message to those companies still using harmful harvesting methods and voice your concern.

Photo by Foto 76/Fotolia



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