An element of many products has recently been under scrutiny, particularly found in chocolates and biscuits from a certain brand, Tunnocks. They aren’t the only brand in question; there are too many to name. However, the original hype surrounding this hidden constituent was because of the devastating fires in Indonesia, which sadly has long vanished from both the media and our thoughts. I am obviously referring to the growth and production of Palm oil, which is having a catastrophic effect on ecosystems across the globe. In a previous article (It’s in the palm of your hand) at the time of the anthropogenic fires in Indonesia I wanted to highlight the main cause of the fires; jungle destruction for Palm oil plantations. The greed for this oil has driven locals to desperate measures, using uncontrolled fires to burn away jungle and thus nearly eradicating the orangutans from existence. But this is not the end, it seems it continues and, in fact, has spread to mangroves; another important ecosystem for wildlife across the globe.
This may seem like old news but the specifics of the problems are often obscured. People are often told what Palm oil is but don’t always understand why it’s having the negative impact it is having, with the likely culprit being poor communication. The demand for cheaper oil needed for food production is growing and is found in various products like chocolates, biscuits and cakes; naming just a few. This, on the outset, seems very reasonable but the simple fact is that it isn’t.The unsolicited demand for this cheap uncontrolled oil is pushing up extinctions and habitat loss in the most crucial places in Asia. The planting of Palm trees across huge swathes of Thailand, Indonesia and other countries is being done simply to fuel the demand in the west. This image of removing forests and jungles is an obvious problem for orangutans and this was the main driver for concern during the fires in October last year.
Mangroves under threat?
Jungles are not the only habitats under threat. It has also stretched to mangroves in various countries such as the Philippines. They themselves are natural defences against high tides and flooding in countries that have huge coastal areas exposed to the Pacific Ocean. In a current time when flooding here in the UK is such a hot topic it is definitely something to think about and to protect knowing the effect flooding has. Add to this natural defence that they provide nurseries for thousands of species of fish, sharks and many others and to me are crazy that they could be replaced with Palm oil plantations. Around 38% of mangrove deforestation over the past 15 years is directly linked to Palm oil and to lesser extent rice plantations. This is something that has to stop.
How can we change?
The direction needed to save jungles, mangroves, orangutans and many other species is a simple choice and nothing more. Above are images that show the three types of scenario that are found on websites and or packaging. The first image from Tunnocks caramel wafers show Palm oil with no sign of sustainability. M&S (the second image from their website) and Waitrose (have a similar message) don’t display it as sustainable because sustainability is their default position. M&S for example have committed to only selling sustainable Palm oil in their own products as shown above, which is from their website. They actually go even further by making commitments to use FSC certified and recycled sources for their wood based material. Many of their clothing suppliers operate eco factories and many of their food factories have also acquired similar sustainability awards. Retailers like Waitrose will sell biscuits from Tunnocks which then brings us to the problem (it’s on their website). A retailer cannot be responsible, to some extent, for selling products that are damaging to wildlife or habitat. Waitrose choose to not use unsustainable Palm oil in their products, but have to make a conscious choice about branded goods. We need to remember that they are sales driven. However, if as consumers we choose to purchase unsustainable Palm oil in products such as Tunnocks it only increases demand and adds to this woeful situation in much of Asia and thus means supermarkets will continue to stock it. The continual use of unsustainable Palm oil will result in destruction of the most precious places on earth, both on the land and the sea.
We naturally now look at the nutritional value of the food we buy, so why not check to see whether the ingredients are from a sustainable source? This simple check could save the lives of thousands of orangutans and countless acres of habitat.
It is highly plausible that money is the driver as is the case for many things; cheaper goods are the main outcome from unsustainable Palm oil. However, this usually means the products it is found in are usually poorer in quality and generally negative to our health. The extra cost on products using sustainable Palm oil doesn’t go to the government or the companies but to the hard-working people who actually manufacture this oil. Isn’t it a good thing to pay a few pence extra in exchange of a better future for these workers and the habitats they work in?
‘Normally direct conservation and the aid of the natural world seem difficult or challenging. To save a single species maybe too much effort’
Above is two quotes from my earlier article on Palm oil, which to me is so important. I added the pullquote (from a reader thank you) to revisit the direct outcomes of this trade and the second because we may have the feeling that its a lot of work. It can be a challenge to inspire change with something which appears isolated, but this problem has far reaching impacts. Not only are jungle habitats being removed but now mangroves. This time, instead of putting blame just at the companies that buy it, I also wanted to point the finger towards the consumers and the corporations that buy this oil at ridiculously low prices. The farmers again can’t be blamed. They only want to provide for their families but we make it more difficult demanding more for less money driving them to cut down jungles and mangroves for plantations. Maybe if they all grouped together and went sustainable it would force companies to do the same. However this is a very optimistic view and it seems that us as a nation need to take the first step and force the hand of the companies that fund this horrible process by changing our shopping habits and therefore changing the world.
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