to save an orangutan

The other day, I wrote about Tim Tams.  But if you wanted to know one of the food-related issues I care about most, it’s palm oil.

While it’s a major part of the current Truth in Labelling bill (before pariliament at the moment), palm oil isn’t really on the radar for most people – perhaps because it managed to be both pervasive and very well hidden.  Palm oil is is in everything. Soaps, shampoos, detergents, cosmetics, biodiesel and an enormous range of processed food (including chips, chocolate, frozen food, biscuits, virtually all margarines and butter substitutes, noodles and cereals).  It’s not at all easy to avoid – it actually takes a real effort.  Not only is in everything, it also has a sneaky tendency to masquerade as “vegetable oil.”

This all begs the question though – why is palm oil such a problem?

Palm oil is predominantly produced in SE Asia, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia.  Indonesia is currently the world’s largest producer of palm oil, producing more than 20.9 million tons in 2009 (apologies, that stat is from Wiki, so I can’t vouch absolutely for its reliability).  Growing of oil palm trees in and of itself isn’t an issue though- the problem is that in order to grow the trees, old growth rainforests are being destroyed at the rate of approximately 300 football fields per hour.  Firstly, this means that the habitat of the orangutans is being completely annihilated – during the past decade, the number of orangutans in the wild has decreased by approximately 50%.  Orangutans are now listed as Endangered (Bornean Orangutan) and Critically Endangered (Sumatran Orangutan).  Asian elephants, tigers and Sumatran tigers are also endangered by the rate of land clearing and destruction of habitat.

In addition to the removal of native fauna habitat, the clearing of rainforests is also one of the greatest contributors to global warming.  Many of the forests are burned rather than clear-felled and up to 15% of carbon emissions are the result of this burning.  Further, the removal of established trees which, through the process of photosynthesis, produce oxygen, is also a contributor to global warming.  This is exacerbated by the fact that a lot of the palm oil plantations are established on old peat bogs, which releases even more carbon (up to 660 million tonnes annually from Indonesia alone).

Oil palms may be easy to grow and palm oil may be easy to use and extremely versatile.  But currently, it’s certainly not sustainable.

Particular things to look out for if you’re trying to avoid products that contain palm oil:

  • Vegetable oil.  At the moment, this covers a multitude of sins that often includes palm oil.  Manufacturers are not required to label products that contain palm oil, which makes it extremely difficult for consumers.
  • Sodium Laureth Sulphate (Can also be from coconut)
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulphates (Can also be from ricinus oil)
  • Sodium dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS)
  • Palmate
  • Palm Oil Kernal
  • Palmitate
  • Elaeis Guineensis
  • Glyceryl Stearate
  • Stearic Acid
  • Steareth -2
  • Steareth -20
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulphate
  • Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate (coconut and/or palm)
  • Hydrated palm glycerides
  • Sodium isostearoyl lactylaye (derived from vegetable stearic acid)
  • Cetyl palmitate and octyl palmitate (and anything with palmitate at the end)

This is a handy list of products that don’t contain palm oil.  There’s also a super useful iPhone app called Shop Ethical! which, as far as I’m concerned, was a pretty good use of $3.99 – it shows which products use palm oil and also which have been certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) as well as info on a bunch of other ethical food issues.

Further info on orangutans and plam oil: (sign the petition!)


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