In the end, climate change made us quit.
On most days, we're like any other card-carrying, food-conscious environmentalists. My wife and I shop at our local natural grocery store, dutifully selecting locally grown, organic produce. We planted fruit trees a few years ago, our summer vegetable garden is thriving, and we generally do what we can to make Michael Pollan proud.
But every now and then, late at night, we get a little wild. Often to the accompaniment of John Stewart, we'll pull the blinds down, tip-toe past our sleeping daughter, reach into the darkest recesses of our cabinets, and pull out something sinful. My personal weakness is for cookies and chocolates. My wife is more the pretzels and chips type.
That was before we learned that palm oil - a common ingredient in many of our favorite munchies, not to mention soaps, cosmetics and biofuel - is one of the biggest causes of rainforest destruction and a prime accelerator of climate change.
Throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and now South America as well, millions of acres of tropical rainforests are slashed and burned every year to make way for massive palm oil plantations. Gone are some of the most biologically diverse, carbon-absorbing ecosystems on the planet, which are home to orangutans, tigers, Sumatran rhinos and other endangered species - all replaced by endless rows of palm trees. The draining of peatlands and rampant deforestation has catapulted Indonesia to its status as the world's third-highest greenhouse gas emitter, trailing only China and the United States. It's a humanitarian nightmare as well: more than five million indigenous people in Indonesia alone are expected to be evicted from their lands by 2010 to make way for palm plantations.
Much of this palm oil makes its way to the United States, where the palm oil trade is driven by the "ABC's of rainforest destruction," giant agribusiness companies Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Bunge and Cargill.
Through late spring and early summer, my organization, Rainforest Action Network (RAN), mobilized hundreds of volunteers to research where palm oil could be found on the shelves of American grocery stores. The news was mixed.
The bad news is that palm oil is nearly everywhere. Palm is used to produce everything from Cheez-Its, Oreos and Mrs. Fields cookies to Pop Tarts, Cool Whip and Ivory Soap. We found palm oil in surprising places, such as Whole Foods-branded products and Newman's O's. It's in Twinkies, Twizzlers, Milky Way bars, even Girl Scout cookies.
The good news is that there are alternatives. As Glenn Hurowitz opined in the Los Angeles Times:
The great tragedy of all this palm oil use (about 30 million tons globally every year) is that it's so easily replaced by healthier vegetable oils, like canola, that come from significantly less ecologically sensitive areas. Indeed, every single product I examined had either a variant or a competitor that didn't contain palm oil -- with no discernible effect on price or quality. Sitting next to those Whole Foods-brand water crackers were Haute Cuisine water crackers made with canola oil. Down the aisle from palm oil-laden Ivory soap was palm-oil-free Lever 2000.
Can we have our cake and our forests too? One step to take is to simply not buy from the companies that came up on RAN's research list. That's a decent start, but if consumers act collectively, we can challenge some of America's most well-known food companies to make much deeper change.
Last week, RAN issued letters to more than 300 different companies, asking them to join us to protect rainforests and fight climate change by finding sustainable alternatives to the palm oil in their products. At the same time, more than 2,000 citizens across the country went to their local grocery stores to plaster stickers reading "Warning: Product May Contain Rainforest Destruction" on any products that contained palm oil. Online, we generated more than 1.3 million emails to those same companies, sent by people who, like many of us, probably enjoy the occasional late night snack, but aren't wild about the accompanying rainforest destruction. Here's what Fortune magazine had to say about it.
In 2008, we shouldn't have to explain to Cargill, Keebler, or any other company that it's not right to displace indigenous communities and chop down rainforests, but we must. To understand the pervasiveness of this problem, and to educate and pressure the companies that are putting palm oil on our shelves, stop by TheProblemWithPalmOil.org, take action, and let us know what you think.