Palm oil – an ecological and social concern

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Pontiac Perspective  Peter J. Gauthier

Last month, French ecology minister Ségolène Royal urged her fellow citizens to cut Nutella out of their diets – not for health reasons but because it is made with palm oil. She wanted to draw attention to the fact palm oil production is recognized as a major contributor to deforestation and climate change.

Pontiac Perspective  Peter J. Gauthier

Last month, French ecology minister Ségolène Royal urged her fellow citizens to cut Nutella out of their diets – not for health reasons but because it is made with palm oil. She wanted to draw attention to the fact palm oil production is recognized as a major contributor to deforestation and climate change.
Palm oil has become ubiquitous in our modern chemical world; it’s an ingredient in thousands of products like baked goods, ice-cream, fried foods, shampoos, and
vehicle fuels. Annual production of the oil exceeds more than 50 million tons, with 85% coming from Indonesia and Malaysia.  Demand for palm oil is
increasing as consumption is expected to double by 2020 and triple by 2050. Sadly, palm oil is produced from large mono-crop plantations created by destroying tropical forests and rare species habitat. Palm oil production has resulted in the destruction of over 90% of orang-utan habitat and direct killing of 1,000 to 5,000 of these
animals each year.
Current methods of palm oil
production also contribute directly to
climate change; when deforestation and peat land drainage occur to make way for oil palm plantations, the sequestered
carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming.  Drainage also means soil
erosion becomes a significant concern and the possibility of destructive forest fires is greatly increased. During June 2013, these fires in Indonesia became an international health concern, causing smog, haze, and respiratory problems as far away as Malaysia and Singapore.
Another dimension to the palm oil problem relates to the exploitation of human resources. Palm oil plantations have been developed without compensation to indigenous people, resulting in social conflict. Often, plantation workers are illegal immigrants and child workers and working conditions are deplorable and worse than that of garment workers
in Bangladesh. Well-paced bribes to
government officials ensure little action is taken to rectify the situation.
The palm oil disaster need not happen. There are proven, responsible production methods available and, certainly, the
market for the product is open and expanding. What is required is consumer awareness. Increasingly, the public is demanding other products such as meats, fish and garments be audited for social and environmental responsibility. Active
consumer response to unacceptable palm oil production can bring about change, but action is needed now.