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Palm oil vs. the orangutan: Let’s act responsibly!

by Sonia Chartier, on 14 September 2015 co-written by Marie-Claude Coupal, Food Manager at A.Vogel Gleaned from A.Vogel's Blog Did you know that every time you wash your hands with soap, spread margarine on a piece of bread, snack on cookies, apply lipstick or light a candle, you are jeopardizing the survival of the orangutan? All of these products contain palm oil, which is widely used in the food and cosmetic industries due to its many qualities:
  • It does not increase blood cholesterol levels.
  • Its semi-solid texture at room temperature adds an oiliness to food.
  • It is stable when heated.
  • It is not expensive and its yield per cultivated area is very high.
Unfortunately, demand for palm oil is so high that huge swaths of tropical forest are cut to make way for palm tree plantations, causing major environmental damage, especially to orangutan habitat:
  • 83% of palm oil production and 89% of exports come from orangutan habitat.
  • Over 90% of orangutan habitat has been destroyed.
  • It is estimated that, currently, approximately 5,000 orangutans die each year from the effects of deforestation

What can we do to help?

Simply replacing palm oil in our food products wouldn’t necessarily be the best solution. For one thing there are many products for which it would be difficult to substitute this oil because it provides a particular texture to food. As it stands, the food industry has very few options for reproducing the desired texture using a different vegetable oil. But mainly, given that oil palms provide a very high yield, less land has to be cleared than for other oil-bearing crops (e.g. soy, canola or sunflower) to produce the same quantity of vegetable oil. Palm oil can also be cultivated in a sustainable, socially responsible way—it all depends on the method used. What causes a lot of the environmental damage is the large-scale production methods currently used by many of the agro-industrial players. If oil palms are cultivated on a fair-trade basis, there is a low environmental impact thanks to their high yield. This tree also has a strong diversification potential and can be cultivated profitably by small farmers as well. Given the urgent need for environment-friendly palm oil production that is respectful of local communities, the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil)—a group of organizations striving to protect the environment, including the WWF (World Wild Fund for Nature)—and the palm oil industry developed environmental and social standards allowing for the production of fair-trade palm oil. RSPO fair trade certification assures the consumer that the palm oil has been produced using an environmentally friendly method that is respectful of the workers. And we can do our part by insisting that common consumer goods be clearly labelled so that we can choose products that don’t contain palm oil from high-risk plantations.
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