You may never have heard of palm oil but you have almost certainly bought plenty of it. It's the most widely-used edible oil in the world, and is found in many processed foods (it is estimated than one in ten supermarket foods contains palm oil) as well as soap, shampoo, make-up and toothpaste. It is also becoming an important biodiesel crop.
Well palm oil is pressed from the fruit of the tropical palm tree. Vast areas of rainforest are being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. It is considered to be the main threat to orangutans, which could become extinct in twelve years due to palm oil. The Sumatran tiger and the Asian rhino are also critically endangered due to rainforest clearance and palm oil is the main culprit. Not to mention the bitter irony of felling our rainforests, those massive ancient carbon sinks, in a bid to grow biofuel which is touted as a solution to climate change.
What's more, palm oil is bad for you. It's one of the few vegetable oils to contain high levels of saturated fat. That's what's so appealing about it, if you're a food manufacturer. It's cheap and it's easy to handle, being solid (or semi solid) at room temperature. But saturated fat is bad for your heart. Yet another reason to avoid the stuff, as if the orangutans weren't reason enough.
What can I do?
VeggieGlobal, the animal and environmental website, says
If you were making conscious efforts to buy "dolphin friendly" tins of tuna, then it's now time to think twice before buying foods or cosmetics containing palm oil
But if it is so ubiquitous, how can you do that? Even reading the ingredients label isn't a sure-fire way to tell if a product contains palm oil, as it is often listed just as "vegetable oil".
But there is good news. In July this year, Asda announced that it would not sell products containing palm oil unless the suppliers could prove that it comes from sustainably-run plantations. They have banned all palm oil from Borneo and Sumatra, the worst affected regions, and hopes to have eliminated all unsustainable palm oil from 500 products within a year. Meanwhile The Body Shop has established its own sustainable organic supplier in Colombia.
So here's what you can do:
- You can shop at Asda and the Body Shop, or you can write to your usual retailers and ask them why they aren't banning unsustainable palm oil as well
- You can write to your member of parliament and tell her about your concerns over palm oil
- You can visit the Palm Oil Action website and learn more about the issue (and see beautiful pictures of orangutans)
- Find 4 products containing palm oil or vegetable oil and write to the manufacturer
- Print out 5 copies of the Palm Oil Action brochure and hand them out to your friends, or better still forward it by email and save a tree.