Cruel Oil: Earth (in) Balance

Learning to be an ethical consumer is no overnight task. Finding out about Fair Trade chocolate, learning to avoid products produced in sweatshops, and steering clear of companies that test on animals requires some investigation and research.  No problem is quite so difficult to unravel as that of palm oil.  A small little seed from the palm plant, it provides one of the most commercially popular and profitable sources of oil for most baked goods, snack foods, vegetable spreads, as well as soap and lotions. In fact, you may be using it without it being labeled as such – many products just say vegetable oil, not letting you know what kind of vegetable oil you are purchasing. Rainforest Action Network has developed a list of over 300 companies that are currently using palm oil.  Angelfire has their own list, too.  Some groups are advocating for labeling so that consumers may avoid this oil. Arbonne, Beauty without Cruelty, and Toms of Maine are some of the companies that use this oil.

When foreign agribusiness comes in, the locals are pushed out of tribal lands.  There are herbicides and pesticides that damage the environment, kill aquatic wildlife and ruin air quality.  In Papua New Guinea, Sumatra and Borneo, animal species are endangered, with a decimation to the orangutans and other species.  With rainforests and peat swamps being consumed for palm oil production, Indonesia has become the world’s third largest producer of greenhouse gases along with a subsequent decrease in rainforest. The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil was started in 2003, and the Malaysian Palm Oil Council is also looking at improving their practices, but as yet, the problems in palm oil production continue.  And there is evidence that it is bringing heart disease to the locals as well as proliferating it across the globe.

One of the problems with palm oil is that it is leading to deforestation as land is cleared for the palm plantations.  Orangutans have particularly been threatened, and many thousands have already been killed. It is estimated that 50 or more orangutans are killed every week due to this practice. Burned in the fires of clear-cutting, starved from lack of habitat, and captured by plantation owners, these close relatives of ours have been paying a grave price for the convenience of a box of crackers or some butter-like spread.  One of the problems is that there are three major U.S. purchasers of palm oil: ADM (Archer Daniel Midland), Bunge and Cargill.  The impact these large corporations are having on local people and wildlife is disastrous, producing mostly non-essential goods for American consumers and leaving devastation for the natives, both human and nonhuman, in their wake.  They are not increasing the quality of life for the locals, either. but in most cases are driving it downwards.

All agricultural land divests the natural world.  But at this late juncture, with ever-increasing extinction of animal species, with run-away human overpopulation posing the gravest threat to the planet that the world has known, with the rainforest the last best hope for being the lungs of the world and fighting against greenhouse gases and the crush of carbon footprints, it hardly seems worth it to purchase products that contain palm oil.  Many vegan cheeses contain these oils, but so do many products that do not identify the oil. Odwalla and KissMyFace, two products from the whole foods arena, use palm oil.  Dove soap is a big customer of palm oil. Check on the above links to determine if anything you intend to purchase contains the oil.

Different people who have investigated have differing opinions of the problem.  Colleen Patrick Goudreau of Compassionate Cooks believes that Earth Balance is an ethical product; yet Earth Balance admits it is difficult for any company to obtain ethically produced palm oil right now. Their organic blend is certified sustainable and comes from the Agropalma plantation in Brazil; however, they are unable to certify all their palm oil at this time as some may not be from sustainable sources. Since the three large corporations that produce palm oil do not certify the origins of their oil, smaller companies that purchase the oil for their products may be incapable of determining where the oil was harvested. In an article by Deb on Invisible Voicesshe came to the conclusion that avoiding palm oil makes sense.  Some folks are using another type of spread substitute, although I have not yet tried it nor have I researched if it is an ethical substitute. Some have turned to Daabon products, although some sources report the company is not without flaw either.  They did not respond to my request for information. What’s a vegan to do?

After speaking to T. J. McIntyre of Earth Balance, it was apparent that his company is trying to be ever more ethical and environmentally sound.  They recently reduced the resin in tubs used to hold Earth Balance by 25%.  They are also converting their exterior cardboard packaging, which will save thousands of trees. They rely on the use of the palm fruit oil, not the palm kernel oil, so their product is reportedly better at reducing cholesterol. With so many products failing to even denote palm oil on their labels, it seems unfair to penalize those that do. Yet it is even more important to protect the native human and nonhuman animals, plants and biosphere.  With global warming ever looming as a threat to the planet, this is not time to divest ourselves of the remaining rainforests.

To summarize, the problems with palm oil are:

  • Lack of labeling so consumers can make the choice to avoid palm oils
  • Lack or information regarding origin of the oil from the Big 3
  • As with animal agriculture, there is a demand, and that demand will be met
  • The oil is primarily grown in areas that are being deforested and that are critical to ALL life
  • Palm oil is a commercially profitable commodity that endangers wildlife and local people

I have heard it put like this: We can live with only one kidney; we can live with only one ear, one arm, one leg. But at some point, if we keep slicing away at ourselves, we cannot sustain the organism.  I believe this is where we are in respect to chopping away at the earth, the habitat, the animal species.  And for what?  These are non-essential items.  I use soap that has no palm oil and it is better than any commercially prepared soap on the market.

This is one issue that is going to require some thoughtful investigation. I would urge you to read the links in this article, check out the links to the articles of others, and come to your own determination. Here are some options:

  1. Use only Organic Earth Balance, which uses certified palm oil sources from sustainable businesses
  2. Use another vegan spread that does not contain any palm oil (if you can find one)
  3. Quit using any products that contain palm oil from any source (this is admittedly difficult to ascertain)
  4. Limit use to only those products whose practices seem ethical
  5. Become active in trying to protect the remaining rainforests
  6. Become active in holding the corporations accountable and promote accurate labeling
  7. Spread the word about palm oil
  8. Boycott companies that use the oil, especially the “Dirty 19″ (see link above for list of companies using palm oil)

You will not discover your ethical options without at least a few clicks of the mouse. This article has been the most research-intensive article I have written to date, and I still have much to learn.  Personally, the life of one orangutan is more significant to my future than a tub of butter; I am just not certain how my consumer choices can best protect that orangutan, especially when ethical consumers are in the minority;  I think some activism is also required. Without proper labeling, corporate accountability, or protection for the native land, I am not convinced there will be an answer in time to protect the animals or their habitat.  I am fortunate in that I buy very few commercially prepared items, but have purchased Earth Balance in the past.  It is a product well-loved by many vegans.  I know researching fairly produced and traded items can be difficult. But when did vegans ever let that stop them from being ethical consumers?

Here is a list of organizations that may help you take action:

Send a letter to ADM and Cargill

Rainforest Action Network

Save the Orangutans

Earth Balance