In Part 1, I introduced you to the palm oil crisis and talked about how it is affecting orangutans. In the poll, I also called for a "boycott." However, that may have been the wrong move on my part.
If you're interested - particularly if you didn't read Party 1 when I posted it - please read on to learn about how a seemingly harmless vegetable oil that is in one out of ten consumer products is one of the most destructive forces on our planet today.
To start with, let's review the poll from Part 1 (posted on January 4th). The question was, "Will you participate in the palm oil boycott?" That's the first noticeable difference - I am no longer calling for a boycott. But I will get back to that later. The answers were good, and they showed an interest in the subject and showed that most people reading the story were at least going to try to do some good:
- Yes, wholeheartedly - 39 votes, 44%
- I'll try to remember to avoid it - 35 votes, 39%
- I'll wait to see what else you have to say (or until your website is up) - 1 vote, 1%
- No - 8 votes, 9%
- Not sure yet, will look it up on my own - 5 votes, 5%
The first difference in the options is that I added one for people who have already been avoiding palm oil because I am obviously not the first person to notice this problem. Also, I took down the bit about my website for reasons I'll explain after the important stuff.
For those of you who are reading about palm oil for the first time, here's a short summary of the problem from Glenn Hurowitz of Grist.org:
Whether it's used as an additive in soap, cosmetics or food, or processed into a biofuel, palm oil is one of the worst culprits in the climate crisis. Most of it comes from the disappearing, ultra-carbon-rich rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, of which a whopping 25,000 square miles have been cleared and burned to make way for palm oil plantations.
That burning releases enough carbon dioxide into the air to rank Indonesia as the No. 3 such polluter in the world. It also destroys the last remaining habitat for orangutans, Sumatran rhinos, tigers and other endangered wildlife.
Accompanying the quote is a particularly powerful picture:
Now, why have I stopped calling for a boycott? Apparently, a massive consumer may not be an effective way to stop the destructive force of palm oil, for a few reasons.
First, it's extremely hard to tell what products palm oil is in. Palm oil can be labeled on a list of ingredients anything from "palm oil" to "palm kernel oil" to "cetyl alcohol" to "sodium laureth sulfate" to plain old "vegetable oil." And a lot of things that palm oil appears as can also be from other kinds of vegetables. For instance, "vegetable oil" can be from palm or canola or olives or many other plants. And with palm oil being in one out of ten consumer products, there is little hope of avoiding it completely.
Second, there's the biodiesel problem. The majority of demand for palm oil is for the biodiesel market. Ironically, this fuel that is supposed to help the environment is actually more detrimental than gasoline. And it prevents a boycott from being effective. The Treehugger.com Forums user EcoInteractive is involved with an eco-tourism project in Central America, where palm oil is also a problem. On this subject, he said:
In my humble opinion, you could have a 100% effective boycott of consumer products using Palm Oil and it would really have a negligible (if any) effect on the African Palm industry (in Latin America anyway, I have no more expertise than anyone else with regard to what is happening in Asia).
For the sake of argument, lets say that consumer products companies stop buying Palm Oil tomorrow. The truth is the Palm Oil that is not purchased by these companies will be quickly gobbled up for Bio Diesel at a price that is competitive with the price of petroleum.
Simply put: the supply of Palm Oil in the market for the purposes of making Bio Diesel is significantly less than the ever increasing demand. The market for Palm Oil is tied to the price of petroleum, not to demand in the consumer market.
In addition to the problem of jobs, the scale of the palm oil industry is really too great for a small group of consumers to make a difference. I had an email exchange with Michelle Desilets of Borneo Orangutan Survival and Richard Zimmerman, the director of Orangutan Outreach, about this subject. Michelle Desilets said:
the way boycotts work is if they are quite universally adopted (internationally) and actually make a dent in the profits. The palm oil industry is so big, including for non-consumer products like energy, that with the best will a boycott will not have an effect. People who organise professional boycotts say that if you launch a boycott and it fails, you are actually doing more harm than good.
And Richard Zimmerman said:
Boycotts? I happen to know a lot of people who choose not to use products with palm oil (I pressure everyone I know!), but in general boycotts of this nature are very difficult. There is just not enough awareness of the issues to be effective. As people with a conscience become aware, they stop using it, but there really needs to be action taken at the policy level. Greenpeace is making great headway with Unilever in Europe. RAN made some strides here in the US, but I don't know what they are doing to follow up with their campaigns from last fall. Basically, the palm oil issue desperately needs media attention. Standing in front of a supemarket dressed in an orangutan costume and handing out literature may seem futile, but it can certainly attract lots of media attention!
As Richard said, there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with avoiding palm oil. In fact, I do it myself and I strongly encourage everyone else to do it. But maybe the word "boycott" isn't the best way to address it and maybe trying to start a boycott isn't the best way to address the palm oil crisis. What is needed is more awareness and more pressure on companies to make sure their palm oil is sourced sustainably.
Speaking of raising awareness, Richard's organization is involved with the show Orangutan Island on Animal Planet. This show is a great tool to raise awareness of the plight of the orangutans. I recommend watching it online or on TV and checking out their website.
In an effort to keep these diaries short and to have them keep the attention of non-environmentalists, I'll talk about better solutions to the palm oil crisis. For now, here are some interesting videos on the perils of palm.
As you can see from that last video, the palm oil industry depends on confusion. The CEO of "Golden Hope," a palm oil producer, said that there are no "poisonous gases" released by burning palm oil, in the context of palm oil fighting global warming. But carbon dioxide and methane - the two most significant greenhouse gases - are not the poisonous gases typically associated with car emissions. They are two different subjects being connected in order to boost palm oil in the eyes of environmentalists. It is truly a false friend.
As for my website, that fell apart when I realized I had no idea what I was doing. If anyone would like to help me put one together, I would love that. Otherwise, I'm limited to these diaries for now.
Coming in Part 3: What can stop the palm oil crisis? Is it species banking? The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil? Eco-tourism? Let's find out.