Animals & the Environment: The Problem with Palm Oil

by Kacey Barton

When I took a visit to the Carolina Tiger Rescue in Pittsboro, North Carolina, I never expected to leave with a lifestyle change. On the tour we saw incredible big and small wild cats, those escaping from lives of show business, entertainment, and people. We learned about their wild counterparts, those who roam the jungles and savannas they call home, and what the biggest impacts on their populations are. I didn't expect that palm oil would be one of the biggest threats for animals in tropical regions. In fact, I didn't even know what palm oil was until this tour.

As soon as I got back to Texas, I took a look in my grocery store; instant noodles, butter, tortillas, ice cream, cookies and even bread and crackers all had palm oil plainly listed as an ingredient. Unfortunately, it isn't limited to food aisles; shampoos and soap, as well as facial creams, makeup, even toothpaste, can contain palm oil. To make matters worse, palm oil is not always evident by name in the ingredients list. Vegetable oil, vegetable fat, Glyceryl, and Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3 are just a few of the numerous other names palm oil hides behind.

Palm trees begin producing fruit at around 3 years of growth, at which point harvesting begins. Palm Oil Investigations reports that the trees can keep producing fruit for up to 30 years, making palm oil a highly "sustainable" product. The truth is, there is nothing inherently wrong with palm oil. What is the problem then? Manufacturing.

The global demand for palm oil has only increased over the years, causing devastation to the native animals and people who are unlucky enough to stand in the way of plantations. The deforestation resulting from the influx of both legal and illegal plantations is a critical issue – one with devastating consequences. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Malaysia and Indonesia currently have 90% of the world's oil palm trees, spelling disaster for these islands; islands that boast “some of the greatest biodiversity on Earth”.

Some of the most direct impact on wildlife has been habitat loss for tigers, orangutans, elephants and rhinos who are already listed as Endangered by the IUCN. It is imperative that consumers take action against companies who insist on using irresponsibly sourced palm oil, or we will have to face the very real potential for extinction of these animals sooner than we realize.

Helping spread the word and taking action against companies that employ unsustainable palm oil practices is a lot easier that you might realize. The World Wildlife Fund has released both a Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard which contains information on companies that have and haven't gone "sustainable", and a list of palm oil's alternative names. Another resource to take advantage of is Say No To Palm Oil's 28 Day Challenge. The challenge lasts 28 days and covers the Pantry, Fridge, Bathroom and Laundry; all with the purpose of helping concerned consumers transition into living “deforestation-free”.  In addition to cutting out unsustainable palm oil offenders, research the brands you commonly find around your home and see if they are using CSPO (Certified Sustainable Palm Oil) or not. Anyone want to join us in the 28 Day Challenge? Let's do it together!