The Consequences of your Shopping Cart: The Problem with Palm Oil
By June Pan '13
Do you like Pepperidge Farm cookies? How about Ben & Jerry’s ice cream? Do you use Herbal Essences shampoo? Ladies, do your favorite cosmetics include CoverGirl or Clinique? Chances are, you answered “yes” to at least one of the above. And believe it or not, everything from your morning make-up to your midnight snack might be contributing to large-scale deforestation and global warming, endangering the livelihoods of humans and animals alike. At base, all of these products — as well as countless others (for example, Neutrogena, Nissin Ramen and Quaker granola bars) — contain a single common ingredient: palm oil.

Just look on the ingredients list of a packet of food sometime, and chances are you will find palm oil listed somewhere between the wheat flour and the tongue-twisting names of chemical compounds. Palm oil is used widely in the manufacturing of cosmetics, food and biofuels. Its ubiquity is indisputable, its sustainability much less so. There have been efforts to make the production of palm oil a sustainable resource, but the fact remains that oil palm plantations are a driving cause of deforestation and, consequently, of habitat loss for many already endangered species.

Indonesia and Malaysia are currently its major producers, constituting approximately 90 percent of the world’s total palm oil exports. On average, one hectare of oil palms can yield about four tons of oil. This seems a hefty amount, until you consider the enormous demand for palm oil. Production simply cannot keep up with industrial demand in a sustainable manner. Oil palms thrive best in lowland forest regions. In order to convert forestland into plantations, swaths of diverse rainforests are cleared each year and the land turned to monoculture production of palm oil. This has led to large scale deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. In 2008, Indonesia appeared in the “Guinness Book of World Records” as the country with the fastest rate of deforestation in the world. Each year, a tract of Indonesian rainforest the size of Wales is cut down and converted into oil palm plantations. That would be approximately 21,000 square kilometers, or a bit over 8,000 square miles. However, the loss of species and ecological diversity are not the only problems palm oil production causes.

The land used to grow oil palms is too often cleared by burning, and the carbon emissions from these fires add up. Toward the end of the 1990’s, the carbon released into the atmosphere from the burning of Indonesian rainforests was roughly equivalent to 40 percent of all global fossil fuel emissions. The 1,400 metric tons of carbon dioxide that Indonesia annually generates from these fires directly contributes to the country’s status as a world leader in carbon dioxide production.

Also troubling from the point of view of social justice is that, as palm oil plantations have advanced, indigenous peoples have been forced to move from their lands, giving up their livelihoods. And as for those who work within the industry, minimum wage is exactly that: deplorably, woefully low.

The question remains of what, exactly, we are supposed to do. We look to big companies and global leaders to make the changes, to show the way. Yet more often than not they fail to deliver, making it all the more impossible for us to do anything. As lone individuals, these problems seem far beyond our scope and influence. At the least, it is certainly not the burden of every single student at Amherst College to single-handedly find a solution to the problem of palm oil.

But this is no excuse for turning a blind eye to the problem itself. Awareness is key. Awareness of what is in our food and the personal products that we use, of where it all came from and what it all means. Will you continue to buy products made from non-sustainable resources, and thus support industries and practices that are destroying our global environment, or will you take a stand and cast a vote for peace and sustainability? Each time you buy a bar or soap or take a bite of that ice cream, your choice reflects on the kind of world that you endorse. Be aware of it.

Issue 21, Submitted 2010-04-07 03:46:04