When we talk about food, and hunger, it’s almost impossible to avoid the topic of sustainability. I know, we hear that word a lot. As consumers, we now live in a world where, with every trip to the grocery store or every night out for sushi, there seems to be a Jiminy Cricket present to remind us about certain seafood that’s been overfished, or packaging that isn’t biodegradable. We’re conscientious shoppers, so it’s something we think about. But, sustainability isn’t just about the product itself. It’s connected to how it’s made, where it comes from, and what it takes to get it to market. Is that process one that is sustainable? Can it be continued as part of our food system well into the future without depleting valuable resources? How would we even know?
One of the most demonized raw materials today is palm oil. If you’ve heard about it at all, you’ve probably learned that production of palm oil destroys ecosystems, decimates virgin rain forests, contributes to air pollution, and creates real risk of extinction for several species of plants and animals. What you might not know is the production of palm oil can create a direct and immediate danger to humans. A July 2015 Wall Street Journal article shed light on severe human rights violations occurring in the global palm oil industry, including human trafficking, unfair wages, and poor working conditions (AL-MAHMOOD, 2015). Palm oil crops produce at least quadruple, and in some cases up to 10 times more oil per unit of land than any possible replacements, such as sunflower or soybean oil, so the alternatives aren’t really so great, either.
What makes things tricky for those of us who really want to do the right thing is that palm oil is an ingredient in so many everyday items we all probably have in our pantries, refrigerators, and medicine cabinets that it seems almost impossible to avoid. It’s in everything from ice cream to chocolate…lipstick to deodorant.
The reality is that we probably won’t be able to keep every product that contains palm oil from crossing our threshold. But, now that we know how dangerous palm oil can be to people and the planet, what do we do?
We look for good palm oil, that’s what. I know, I just told you about how horrible it is, but after doing some research I discovered that it doesn’t have to be. If palm oil is grown using sustainable farming practices, it not only protects the ecosystems where it’s grown, but also the people who are growing and harvesting it. How will we know if a product contains responsibly produced palm oil? Just look for this symbol:
That symbol represents an effort by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to change the way palm oil is grown, harvested, and produced, and to “make sustainable palm oil the norm.” 13 countries have already adopted sustainable practices, earning designation as RSPO certified producers. Many companies are displaying the RSPO trademark on their packaging, making it easy to spot the ones who are doing it right. In order for more companies to start using sustainably produced palm oil in their products, they have to know it’s important to us. That’s where you come in.
You all know that I don’t post a lot of “Call to Action” type stuff on this blog. I’ve carefully avoided corporate sponsored posts, or high pressure pitches to use a certain product or company. However, this is different. This is about playing a role in creating a more sustainable food system—one that can feed the planet for our kids and their kids and their kids without doing harm to people or planet. We’re going to talk about local food systems in this series, of course, but we also have to recognize that the choices we make locally have global impact. If we can help make sustainable palm oil production standard practice, we’re making a difference. Don’t just take my word for it, though. I encourage you to do your own research and decide for yourself. A few good places to start are:
Whatever your opinion is, please join the conversation using the social media hashtag #goodbadpalmoil.
AL-MAHMOOD, S. (2015, July 26). Palm-Oil Migrant Workers Tell of Abuses on Malaysian Plantations. Retrieved May 19, 2016, from http://www.wsj.com/articles/palm-oil-migrant-workers-tell-of-abuses-on-malaysian-plantations-1437933321