Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Betty Crocker vs. Orangutans (Guess Who's Winning)

Palm oil is an ingredient in 50 percent of all consumer goods, a fact that could lead to the extinction of the orangutan within 20 years

This week is Rainforest Week (October 17 - 24) -- no better time to consider how the palm oil industry is ruining the world's rainforests and the habitats of the animals living there.

According to the Australian environmental group PalmOilAction.org, it is "the world’s most important edible oil when ranked by global production and consumption."

Global production of oils and fats in 2008 was 160 million tons, according to the Hamburg-based Oil World trade journal. Together, palm oil and palm kernel oil were the largest contributor, accounting for 30 percent. Soybean oil came in second at 23%.

Development of plantations to secure this valuable oil has been a prime cause of deforestation in Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and Colombia. Without carbon-storing trees, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

In Indonesia, habitat loss due to palm oil deforestation has destroyed the habitats of orangutans, Sumatran tigers and elephants, and has also put some 20 million of the nation's indigenous and forest-dependent people at risk. It is estimated that a rainforest area the size of 300 soccer fields is being destroyed every hour in the country.

At this current rate of habitat loss, both species of orangutans are on target to become extinct in the wild within 20 years.

One of Indonesia's biggest palm oil purchasers is General Mills, a Fortune 500 corporation that markets some of the most popular consumer food brands and products, including Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Nature Valley, Cheerios, Yoplait, Colombo, Totinos, Jeno's, Green Giant, Old El Paso, Häagen-Dazs, Lucky Charms and Wanchai Ferry.

"Palm oil is a globally traded agricultural commodity that is used in 50 percent of all consumer goods, from lipstick and packaged food to body lotion and biofuels," according to non-profit environmental group Rainforest Action Network (RAN). It is an ingredient in one in four food products.

Public awareness of unsustainable palm oil has been on the rise. Activists working with PalmOilAction.org have mounted successful campaigns in Australia, getting companies like Woolworths and KFC to switch to more sustainable oils like canola or sunflower oil for their products.

But much more needs to be done. Consumer demand for products that contain materials whose extraction means ecosystem destruction must change. Without biodiversity, humans simply cannot survive in the long run.

at the opening session of the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan, CBD executive secretary Ahmed Djoghlaf noted in his opening comments that the third edition of the Global Biodiversity Outlook demonstrates that, "Today, the rate of loss of biodiversity is up to one thousand times higher than the background and historical rate of extinction."

"If we allow the current trends to continue we shall soon reach a tipping point with irreversible and irreparable damage to the capacity of the planet to continue sustaining life on Earth. The report warns that the status of biodiversity for the next million years will be determined by the action or inaction of one species -- human beings."

  • Download a Rainforest Action Network list of palm oil products to avoid
  • Sign a petition urging Food Standards Australia and New Zealand to make it the law to label products containing palm oil so consumers can make informed decisions
  • Sign up with Rainforest Action Network to sleuth your local bookstore for rainforest safe books
  • Protect an acre of rainforest through Conservation International
[Editor's note: October is food month on 13.7 Billion Years. Daily posts will present a different morsel to chew on -- offering a moment to think about what we eat, how our food gets to our plates and how our gastronomical choices and habits affect our bodies, our fellow planetary inhabitants and the environment. To get involved with other (i.e., non-food-related) action alerts, follow 13.7 Billion Years on Twitter.]

image: palm oil deforestation in Malaysian Borneo (credit: NASA)

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