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Your Nutella Addiction is KILLING the Planet

Introduction


Did you know that the nutella toast you ate for breakfast is ruining the amazon?? Palm oil, which is found in about 50% of all grocery store  items (Rainforest Rescue), is one of the leading causes of deforestation in the Amazon.  This oil is derived from the fruits of the oil palm tree and is considered to be an edible vegetable oil (Say No to Palm Oil, 2017). This product is also rapidly becoming one of the major ingredients in frozen foods (Vignieri and Fahrenkamp-Uppenbrink, 2017).  The high melting point of palm oil and low productivity cost make it an ideal biofuel (Rainforest Rescue). While the the low cost of the palm oil biofuel beneficial for the general public, it has an ecological climate impact three times more effective than that of a traditional biofuel.  Palm oil is a major ingredient on both food and cosmetics sold around the world (Good, 2014).


The fruits of oil palms (wikimedia)

Palm oil can be found in various places around the world.  However, it is typically found in areas that are hot and moist. This means that the tropics are a perfect habitat for oil palm plants. The oil palm plant was originally discovered in western Africa, but was brought to Southeast Asia at the beginning of the 20th century (Say no to Palm Oil, 2017).

This late interest in palm oil suggest that the desire for this product is a relatively new phenomenon. Today, Indonesia and Malaysia are the largest exporters of palm oil around the world (Say No to Palm Oil, 2017).


Map of southeast Asia (wikimedia) Map of western Africa (wikiedia)

While palm oil may be producing low cost biofuels, and keeping frozen foods on the shelves longer, it is destroying the Amazon. Palm oil farming is one of the leading causes of deforestation in the Amazon and has been linked to animal cruelty and indigenous right abuse (Say No to Palm Oil, 2017).  Every hour, a space occupying about 300 football fields is cleared in order create palm oil plantations (Say No to Palm Oil, 2017).  Forests are being cleared by burning, which released greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.  This, in turn increases the rate of climate change (Say No to Palm Oil, 2017). The production of palm oil pants also leads to habitat loss.  This loss has lead to the decrease in many species as well as a decrease in biodiversity.  It is believed that in the past ten orangutan populations have decreased up to 50% and about 1000 of them are lost each year as a direct result of palm oil farming (Say No to Palm Oil, 2017).  Animals are not the only organisms being affected by habitat loss.  Indigenou tribes are being forced off their land by the government, who values the economy more than the rights of these people.  Palm oil plantations are also taking young indigenous children and forcing them into child labor.  This industry cracks the top four for woest child labor in the world (Say No to Palm Oil, 2017). So, while palm oil may have its good qualities in our lives, such as it incorporation in so many of our amenities, the production of it is ruining the Amazon.


History


Traditional utilization of palm oil in West Africa

The cultivation of palm oil is believed to have started around 3000 B.C. in Western Africa and used heavily in African cuisine. It was until the 15th century that palm oil was discovered by the European world.  Around this time the Portuguese, who had a hand in colonizing tropical areas of western Africa, began provisioning the crop on slave ships crossing the Atlantic (Poku, 2002). After the abolition of the slave trade, oil palm became the most prevalently shipped cargo from Africa (2002). However, it was not until the early 19th century when the rise of industrial colonialism promoted the cultivation of palm oil on a much larger scale.  The British first brought palm oil to areas of India in the 1830s, followed by the Dutch’s establishment of palm oil seedlings in Java in 1848 (Murdoch, 2009). By the end of the century, the palm oil industry had boomed in response to the industrial revolution, and palm oil plantations run on underpaid laborers flourished because of the demand for machine lubricants, candles, and various other products for industrial processing (2009).


Palm oil cultivation grew steadily until the 1980s when human pollination of plants–used to mimic wind pollination, was replaced by a much cheaper alternative using weevils. In response, Malaysia and Indonesia became the world’s biggest exporters of palm oil, and production increased exponentially worldwide. By the turn of the 21st century, the palm oil industry was heavily implicated in the widespread deforestation of Indonesia (Murdoch, 2009).  Palm oil producers were accused of extremely harmful practices, including the setting of widespread forest fires that blanketed major cities across southeastern Asia with smoke and contributed to the significant air pollution caused by deforestation.

The development of the palm oil industry in South America emerged around the late 1990s, incentivized by governments looking for a productive cash crop to subsidize their economies. The establishment of palm oil plantations in South America has become cheaper over the years due to a boom in crude oil prices, a push from countries to alleviate their dependence on foreign fossil fuels, and the profit of logging and clearing tracts of land (Palm Oil Development May Threaten Amazon, 2009). Oil palm has significantly higher profitability than the other staple resources of the area like soybeans and cattle, making further commercial establishment in South America extremely favorable for many countries (Brandão and Schoneveld, 2015).  Although countries like Peru and Brazil fall outside of the ranking of the world’s largest producers of oil palm, ease of cultivation and potential profit indicate that South American exportation of oil palm is most likely to rise dramatically in the coming years.    


Current Status


Pollution from a Palm Oil Mill in Indonesia (Wikimedia)

Effects in Southeastern Asia


The landscapes of southeastern Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia look drastically different today than they did in the years before commercialized palm oil production.  Indonesia, the world’s largest exporter of oil palm, is also the world’s third largest carbon emitter.  Eighty-five percent of those carbon emissions comes from the burning of forests and peat, primarily for the establishment and upkeep of palm oil plantations. In 2016, these fires set by landowners in the peat bogs to enrich the soil for further cultivation swept across the country uncontrolled (Coca, 2016). Fed by the unnaturally dry landscape resulting from the draining of wetlands for agricultural use, these fires caused billions of dollars worth of damage, resulted in nearly a half-million cases of respiratory disease, and a hundred-thousand premature deaths (2016). Ecologically, the biodiversity of  southeastern Asia is under threat from the palm oil industry.  Nearly a quarter of the Indonesia’s amphibian and mammal species are classified as threatened and living in areas available to palm oil developers (Koh and Wilcove, 2007). This is especially concerning because nearly half the amphibian and vascular plant species in Indonesia are endemic to the region, meaning that their loss would result in a global extinction event (2007). One of the most notable species suffering from the palm oil industry is the Sumatran orangutan. Listed as critically endangered, the orangutan needs large areas of old-growth primary forest to sustain population levels (Nantha and Tisdell, 2008).  Fifty-five percent of the plantations that now dominate the Indonesian landscape cropped up at the expense of ideal orangutan habitat (2008). Unable to sustain themselves on this new topography, the Sumatran orangutan has been pushed to the very brink of extinction because of the deforestation of their natural habitats for commercial palm oil use.  


Effects in Peru and South America


Beginning in the early 2000s, the palm oil industry in the Peruvian amazon began to expand dramatically. The most heavily cultivated regions have been Loreto and San Martin in northeastern Peru, and despite government guidelines, 72-percent of plantations have been established on cleared primary forests (Butler, 2013).  It was found that two companies under the Peruvian corporation Grupo Romero had cleared 16,800 hectares of primary forest in these regions in only 15 years (Tarabochia, 2016). Modern GIS technology was used to determine that three other large palm oil plantations, also under the control of Grupo Romero, cleared 7,000 hectares of primary forest over six years, despite the government’s warnings against this practice (Butler, 2013).  The company denied this claim, but is currently facing litigation for misconduct in its plantation establishment practices. Furthermore, Loreto saw a 115% increase in deforestation from 2006 to 2013, due to palm oil industry, alone (Tarabochia, 2016).  This not only affects the forest, but the individuals living in it. Villages surrounding these palm oil plantations have their access to water for personal use and on their own small farms limited because of the demand from the plantations (2016).  Although still an emerging commercial industry, the establishment of oil palm plantations in Peru has already had numerous serious environmental and human effects in the area.

Orangutan (Flickr)

Effects on global carbon emissions and biodiversity


Since the palm oil has become a global industry found in at least 43 countries, the widespread effects of this aggressive level of agriculture are beginning to be understood. The clearing of old-growth and secondary-growth forests or plantations has been found to contribute significantly to an increase in global deforestation. Global deforestation has been attributed to 10% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions from 2001 to 2013 (Vijay et. al, 2016).  The destruction of these forests for the replacement with palm oil seedlings releases a significant amount of carbon into the atmosphere while dramatically decreasing the carbon sequestration potential of the area (2016).  Palm oil plantations have also been described as “wildlife deserts.” The establishment of plantations dramatically decreases species richness and biodiversity in the area. A study conducted on invertebrates–indicative of overall biodiversity, found that only 15% of taxa in primary forests were present on palm oil plantations (Fitzherbert et. al, 2008). Furthermore, the species that suffered the most were ones that relied on specialized environments and diets, indicating that those species who are already threatened are most in danger of local extinction because of palm oil plantations (2008). The long-term global effects of the palm oil industry are not to be overlooked.


Foundation of the RSPO in response


The recognition that the exponential expansion of the palm oil industry is having negative effects on both local and global environments and subsequent popular outcry has spurned the development of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).  This organization is a conglomerate of numerous palm oil companies who are aiming to set more specific guidelines on sustainable practices and ameliorate their poor public image.  RSPO has set out to promote conservation efforts in areas most affected by their industry and an insistence that new plantations are not established on pre-existing forested areas (Ruysschaert and Salles, 2016). Self-reported adherence to these voluntary guidelines allow products to be marketed with a “sustainable palm oil” denotation, and nearly 20% of the world’s most recent palm oil harvest was marked as sustainable (2016).  Although these measures are a step in the right direction for a coordinated effort to mitigate the damage caused by the palm oil industry, the lack of consequences for businesses that do not follow the voluntary guidelines.


What’s being done?


Global and Local Initiatives


While palm oil production is drastically affecting the Amazon, steps are being taken to ensure that that the future of the forest has the potential to be bright. On a local scale, the Peruvian government has installed regulations in order to prevent further damage. These regulations include limiting palm oil farms to old cattle pastures.  This was in hopes that by using already used land, the forest would have the chance to regenerate(Gaworecki,2014). On a global scale many countries are starting to incorporate palm oil on their list of ingredients. In Australia and China, palm oil is listed as vegetable oil on all the food products it is found in, and India does not  list palm oil as an ingredient  even if it is present. On the other hand, Europe has been listing palm oil as an ingredient in all foods where it is present since 2014, and the USA list palm oil even if it is mixed with other oils (Outline of Production: Palm fruit to Production).  While it is positive that these products are informing customers of the presence of palm oil, this is only the case for foods.  If palm oil is present in any cosmetics, it does not have to be mentioned (Gaworecki, 2014). Many applications for mobile phones allow consumers to scan items and see if they contain palm oil.  These apps also function as an educational tool for consumers and can be downloaded for free. An example of this is the sustainable palm oil shopping app produced by the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Not only does this app inform consumers of the presence of palm oil in a product but also gives each brand a rating based on their responsible use of palm oil (Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, 2017).  Some large corporations, such as Kellogg’s have taken a pledge to only use sustainable palm oil because of lobbying from consumers (Rainforest Rescue).


Novel Idea


In order to combat the destruction of the Amazon we suggest a two pronged approach.  The first prong consists of educating consumers.  Many consumers are not aware of the effects palm oil plantations have on the foreset, and it is our hope that  once they become knowledgeable to what is going on, they will become more selective in the products they buy.  This education can be approached through apps for mobile phones as well as transparent label that include the effects of palm oil on the environment. Our second proposition is to lobby for college dining halls and large corporations across the country to use sustainable palm oil products


Lit Cited:

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