Palm oil has become an almost ubiquitous replacement for everything else, it is showcased as a healthier alternative to trans and more saturated fats and as a replacement to ethanol as biofuel.
What we don’t see in this simple equation is the environmental cost, and I’m not just talking about the trees and plants that are destroyed to make room for the palm tree monocultures. Orangutans, our cheery orange cousins, are native to Indonesia and Malaysia, and live only in the jungles of the islands Borneo and Sumatra.
Since palm oil has started to boom their numbers have dropped even more wildly: their total population has sunk below 50,000 from over 230,000 less than a century ago (this is likely higher than the global 52% average drop in animal populations seen in the last 40 years). The U.S. ban on trans fats (which are unhealthier than palm oil) is likely only going to exacerbate this increasingly dire trend, which currently sees around 300 football fields (1,605,360 square meters) of rainforest cleared every hour to make way for palm oil.
Due to the lack of oversight and regulation in Indonesia and Malaysia, deforestation in the name of palm oil doesn’t show any indication of decreasing. Land clearing for palm oil plantations is the number one cause of deforestation in Indonesia, which saw approximately 1,240,000 square kilometers of rainforest burned and cut down for palm oil between 2009 and 2011.
Luckily, many environmental organizations have taken notice of this trend, and consumer awareness has slowly been rising (alongside demand). Strangely, although Greenpeace is willing to talk about palm oil driven rainforest destruction in southeast Asia they are unwilling to discuss the fact that 91% of Amazonian deforestation takes place to make room for animal agriculture.
Worldwide we are seeing a blatant disregard for biodiversity, with staggering deforestation being allowed for a myriad of reasons. All of these reasons culminate in making costs cheaper for industry, and boosting profits alongside GDP: it’s a win-win for industry and politicians but a lose-lose for most humans and all wildlife.
A recent report for the United Nations showed that almost no industry would even be breaking even if they were forced to pay for their environmental costs, instead of externalizing them. You don’t have to fly out to Borneo to see a government disregarding biodiversity in the name of industry, in fact you can see this in the United States and Canada.
In the United States, the “Bureau of Land Management” has chronically opened public lands, including national parks, for industry activities spanning from ranching to drilling for oil. Wild animals, including wild horses, are routinely removed from public lands or killed in order to make room for cattle herders. This is also not something that just happens in the United States.
Wildlife destruction, for palm oil or animal agriculture, is costing us far more than we could possibly gain from these new uses. We are currently experiencing an extinction rate approximately 1000x the background level, and the majority of this loss of species are seen in these very same ecosystems that are being exploited for cheap oil and meat.
The reason this suicidal system able to continue so flawlessly because the real issue is so seldom discussed, and articles spanning thousands of words about palm oil very infrequently touch on the role of animal agriculture or apathetic governments worldwide for allowing this to happen.
Despite all this, we have reason to hope. Due to the connectivity and social pressure that the internet can now generate vast international public pressure in relatively short periods of time. This kind of pressure and attention has historically been enough to influence both company and government policy, and provoke expressions of surprise and a determination to change from executives who probably already knew what was going on.