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'Final Countdown:' Are Your Food Choices Pushing Wildlife to Extinction?

An ingredient found in many everyday products is pushing wildlife towards the brink of extinction. It’s also displacing smallholder farmers and moving us closer to a climate catastrophe.

The rising demand for palm oil is contributing to deforestation worldwide, as forests are destroyed and cleared to build industrial-size palm oil plantations.

A new investigation found that the world’s biggest brands, including Unilever, Nestlé, Colgate-Palmolive and Mondelez, are responsible for destroying an area of rainforest almost twice the size of Singapore in less than three years. Why? Because they use palm oil in a variety of food and personal care products, including frozen pizzas, ice cream, cookies, chocolates, soaps, candles, makeup and detergents.

“Final Countdown,” published by Greenpeace International, found that since 2015, about two dozen palm oil groups cleared more than 130,000 hectares of rainforest. About 40 percent of the deforestation was concentrated in Papua, Indonesia.

Indonesia is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. But that biodiversity is being threatened, because the country is also the world’s largest producer of palm oil.

Big Box brands are destroying vast stretches of rainforest for palm oil

Deforestation for palm oil plantations is pushing mankind’s closest living relative, the orangutan, to the brink of extinction. One of the biggest culprits is the Illinois-based snack food giant, Mondelez.

Mondelez is accused of sourcing palm oil from suppliers that have destroyed 70,000 hectares of rainforest—an area larger than the size of Chicago—since 2016. The snack food giant uses palm oil in its Ritz crackers, Cadbury chocolate and Oreo biscuits, to name a few.

In less than two decades, Bornean orangutan populations have been cut in half due to loss of habitat. Other species, including the Sumatran elephant, Sumatran rhino and the Sumatran tiger, are also being threatened as forest are cleared to plant more palm-oil trees.

Environmentalists warn that time is running out to save Indonesia’s critically endangered orangutans, which are being killed at a rate of 25 a day as their habitat is destroyed to build palm-oil plantations.

Watch this video for more on how palm oil is threatening orangutans.

Sixty-percent of palm oil is used for biofuel

Native to Africa, oil-palm trees look similar to coconut-palm trees. They can grow to more than 60 feet tall. They flourish on the peaty wetland soil found in lowland tropics. About twice a month, oil-palm trees produce a 50-pound bunch of walnut-size fruit that contains an oil more versatile than nearly any other plant-based oil of its kind.

Although used widely in various consumer products, a big percentage of palm oil is used for biodiesel fuel. About 40 percent of palm oil is used in food, animal feed and chemical products while 60 percent is used for energy including biofuel, power and heat, according to the Rain Forest Action Network (RAN).

The impact of deforestation stretches far and wide. Not only does it threaten wildlife, but it also displaces smallholder farmers and indigenous communities (who are often brutally driven from their land). And deforestation is a primary driver of climate change, because it releases large amounts of carbon stored in trees and soil. According to The New York Times:

Forests hold as much as 45 percent of the planet’s carbon stored on land, and old-growth trees in particular hold a great deal of that carbon, typically far more than any of the crops that replace them. When the trees are cut down, most of that carbon is released.

The rainforests in Indonesia store vast amounts of carbon. Researchers from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration say the accelerated destruction of rainforests in Borneo, Indonesia contributed to the single-largest global increase in carbon emissions in two millenniuma. According to RAN’s website:

Indonesia—the world’s largest producer of palm oil—temporarily surpassed the United States in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in 2015. With their CO2 and methane emissions, palm oil-based biofuels actually have three times the climate impact of traditional fossil fuels.

How you can make a difference

Investigations such as Greenpeace’s “Final Countdown” are important as they offer consumers a glimpse into the health and environmental effects of supply chains for commodities such as palm oil. They also highlight the importance of how making good choices regarding your food affects wildlife and the livelihoods of people on the other side of the globe.

Fortunately, there’s power in spreading awareness and in how consumers spend their dollars. 

If you want to opt out of the harm caused by palm oil, prepare more homecooked meals made of local, organicand regenerativeingredients. Shop at your local farmer’s market where you can purchase not only locally produced food, but also soaps, candles and other everyday products that are less likely to contain palm oil.

Consumers can also reach out to retailers and manufacturers and ask for palm-oil free products. Most companies don’t want to give their products a bad name, which means they’re often open to hearing about the wants and concerns of their customers.

For more information on palm oil, check out Greenpeace International’s full report, available here.

Julie Wilson is communications associate for the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). To keep up with OCA news and alerts, sign up for our newsletter.

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