Palm oil and how it links Halloween to the environment

10/25/2013

Halloween is just around the corner! Before you start handing out treats to all the little ghosts, goblins and ghouls that come knocking at your door, take a moment to consider what is in that candy and how your purchases could affect animals on the other side of the world. Do you know what connects candy, frozen dinners, cookies, crackers, lotions, cosmetics, pet food and biofuel, and was responsible for killing almost 8,000 orangutans in 1997 and 1998? If you guessed "palm oil," then you are correct! Palm oil (also called palm kernel oil, palmitate and palmitic acid) is the most widely produced edible oil, with more than 44 million metric tons produced per year. This number is rapidly rising due to recent trans-fat health concerns and our constant pursuit of bio-fuel development. It is derived from the African oil palm trees, which flourish in warm, wet places. This makes rainforest regions the ideal location for palm oil plantations.

Halloween is just around the corner! Before you start handing out treats to all the little ghosts, goblins and ghouls that come knocking at your door, take a moment to consider what is in that candy and how your purchases could affect animals on the other side of the world. Do you know what connects candy, frozen dinners, cookies, crackers, lotions, cosmetics, pet food and biofuel, and was responsible for killing almost 8,000 orangutans in 1997 and 1998? If you guessed "palm oil," then you are correct! Palm oil (also called palm kernel oil, palmitate and palmitic acid) is the most widely produced edible oil, with more than 44 million metric tons produced per year. This number is rapidly rising due to recent trans-fat health concerns and our constant pursuit of bio-fuel development. It is derived from the African oil palm trees, which flourish in warm, wet places. This makes rainforest regions the ideal location for palm oil plantations.

Palm oil itself is not a problem. It is a very useful ingredient for many products and produces five to 10 times more oil per acre than other plants such as soy and canola. It is also a major source of income and employment for the countries that grow it. The problem arises because millions of acres of rainforest are destroyed every year to make room for more palm oil plantations. The majority of palm oil plantations are found in two countries: Borneo and Sumatra. Typically, when a new plantation is established, a slash and burn technique is used to clear the land. First, they cut down the trees and other large vegetation, and then burn the remaining plants. These fires can be quite large and sometimes get out of control. One such fire in 1997 and 1998 killed almost 8,000 orangutans.

Borneo and Sumatra are the only two islands in the world where orangutans can be found in the wild. Orangutans depend on rainforest habitats for survival, but this habitat is rapidly disappearing. Cutting rainforests down is appealing to plantation owners because they can gain an added profit by selling the timber they cut. However, rainforest soil is actually very poor for growing crops. All the rain leaches the vital plant-growing nutrients out of the soil. After a slash and burn is performed in an area, the new crops will grow well for a couple of years before they use up the nutrients left in the soil from the burn. When the soil is no longer fertile enough to produce a crop, the land is abandoned and more rainforest is destroyed to make room for more crops. This cycle is repeated over and over again. Unfortunately, it can take decades (some estimates range from 65 to 4,000 years) for the forest to reclaim these areas, as seeds must deal with erosion, poor soil and changed climatic conditions.

Palm oil plantations directly impact wild orangutan populations, causing their decline. But what can you do? It is not practical to demand a complete stop to the use of palm oil, especially since it is such a beneficial plant and provides such substantial income for the families that live in those countries. One possible solution that would address both sides of the issue is not to boycott palm oil use entirely, but to encourage the use of sustainable plantations and support the companies that use palm oil in a renewable, non-destructive way.

For a plantation to be considered "sustainable," it must meet some strict guidelines. They must monitor greenhouse gas emission and dispose of waste appropriately. Plantation owners must also use the land effectively, which includes using fruits that fall on the ground, quickly replacing plants that die and not cutting down forest where highly endangered animals (such as the orangutan) live. They also must make sure the people who work for them have adequate housing, health care, schooling and decent wages.

Because of the increasing demand for sustainable palm oil production, many companies have started using oil only from plantations that do not negatively impact rainforests and the animals that live there. You can help by purchasing products, including your Halloween candy, from companies such as Nestle, Hershey's, Mars, Walmart Great Value brand, Kellogg, PepsiCo and Kraft (to name a few) that are members of the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). These companies are committed to using palm oil only from certified sustainable plantations. The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has even developed a shopping guide app that can be downloaded to your smartphone to help you choose sustainable products! To learn more about the palm oil crisis and what you can do to help, visit the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo website at www.cmzoo.org and look under the "Conservation Matters" tab. The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colo., is one of the leading educators for the palm oil crisis.

While it may not be possible to avoid the sugar overload that inevitably comes with Halloween and trick-or-treating, we can at least choose our snacks wisely and do our part to protect orangutans and other rainforest animals. With Thanksgiving and Christmas quickly approaching as well, this is the perfect time of year to start a new tradition of purchasing orangutan-friendly products and strive to make our holiday season even greener! Happy Halloween!

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