Palm Oil Is in Everything, and It’s Hurting More Than the Orangutans
By Helen A. Lee
We cook with it. We bathe with it. We use it for mood lighting. Palm oil is an ingredient in processed foods, cosmetics, hygiene products, biofuels and candles; experts estimate it's found in 50 percent of the items on grocery store shelves. Inexpensive to produce, palm oil contains no trans fats, and has a high melting point, making it versatile and easy to spread. The result: increasing demand. In 1996, global production totaled 16 million metric tons. By 2017, it was 60.7 million.
But there's a problem. Palm oil may not cost much to produce, but it exacts a high price on the environment. And thanks to this often-invisible ingredient's complex international supply chain, efforts to reduce that impact are proving challenging.
From Virgin Forest to Grocery Store
The story of palm oil begins with clearing tropical rainforests and peatlands for plantations of oil palm trees, which thrive on warmth, sunlight, and copious rainfall. The trees — native to West Africa — produce clusters of orange-red fruit year-round, and can be harvested every 10–14 days when mature. For the most part, oil palms don't need much help, but some farms do use herbicides and insecticides. Oil palms produce 3.8 metric tons of oil per hectare annually — eight times as much as soybeans (.5 t/ha), and almost five times the yield of canola (.8 t/ha).
Palm fruit contains oil in its flesh (palm oil), and its seed (palm kernel oil). At diesel-powered mills, fruit and kernels are pressed to extract oil. The next stop is often a refinery, where bleaching improves the oil's color, deodorization reduces its smell, and "fractionation" can create different oils suited for different purposes. Then, the oil is shipped all over the world.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says palm oil is the most consumed oil in the world, and its non-food uses are also increasing. India, China, Europe and Pakistan are the top importers, collectively using more than half of the global supply. In Asia, it's used in home cooking. In Europe and the U.S., most demand comes from manufacturers for everything from Oreos to toothpaste. You can find it in Silk soy milk, Secret deodorant, Nutella, Jergens lotion, instant noodles and Girl Scout cookies.
Palm Oil and Environmental Devastation
Malaysian and Indonesian plantations make up about 85 percent of the industry, with Guatemala, Benin and Thailand among the other top producers. Areas with low wages and abundant labor often welcome palm plantations — despite the industry's history of slavery, child labor, and land-theft — because of their potential to lift workers out of poverty.
Around the world, the business of palm oil harms the environment. During conventional cultivation, forests are cleared for plantations, bringing biodiversity loss, human-wildlife conflict, and habitat destruction affecting many species, notably the orangutan. A recent International Union for Conservation of Nature report notes that 50% of all deforestation on Borneo between 2005 and 2015 was driven by palm oil development.
This deforestation also contributes to climate change; the conversion of forests to palm oil plantations releases carbon dioxide that had been absorbed by old-growth forests. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimated in 2013 that 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from tropical deforestation.
These impacts have proven hard to combat, in part because palm oil is rarely the end commodity. Richard Zimmerman, executive director of New York-based non-profit Orangutan Outreach, calls it a "pervasive yet hidden" problem. Given all the chemicals, sugars, fats, and allergens shoppers are already trying to avoid, he said, "Palm oil is low on the list, if it's even on the list."
Palm oil and its derivatives appear under a multitude of monikers, from "palm kernel oil" and "partially hydrogenated palm oil" to "sodium lauryl sulfate" and "glyceryl stearate." Other names, according to the Rainforest Action Network, include "stearic acid," anything that includes "palmitate," and "elaesis guineensis" (the oil palm's Latin name). Try finding products in your grocery store without these. Not that all these terms always mean palm oil — some are occasionally derived from other oils. But companies likely can't guarantee that, and there's no way of knowing from reading a package.
So how do we change things? One group trying to answer that question is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a 4,000-member-strong industry non-profit. Its approach includes offering financial incentives to stakeholders along the supply chain in return for implementing best practices.
RSPO members must demonstrate that plantation land was purchased, not stolen, and that they offer safe conditions for workers. The RSPO prohibits clearing primary (never-logged) forests and imposes requirements like: obtaining free, prior, and informed consent from locals for new plantings; analyzing and protecting fragile soils and areas of high-conservation value; and mitigating carbon impacts in place.
But right now, only about 20 percent of palm oil is RSPO-certified, and critics think the group's approach still doesn't go far enough. Greenpeace's Senior Palm Oil Campaigner Diana Ruiz said investigations show that brands shift responsibility for palm oil sourcing problems onto traders, and traders don't enforce on their end. "Once you get … all the way to the grower, there is no monitoring being done," she says — and no good way to address violations.
Beyond the produce section, palm oil can be found in almost everything in your grocery store, from from Oreos to toothpaste and beyond.
The Future of Palm Oil
Palm oil has a long supply chain, which makes reducing its use complex. "Historically, companies have not paid attention to what happens at the farm level, because [palm oil] is a secondary ingredient," said Neil Blomquist, a spokesperson for the education and advocacy group Palm Done Right.
That may be changing, as palm oil gets more publicity. Still, places where palm grows see a clear economic boom from the industry, and there's always a market for cheap consumables.
"It's a difficult industry to regulate for that reason," Blomquist said. "There's been a growing demand for palm oil, the lowest-cost oil that can be produced. So, increasing demand with an increasing population in the world is really what's driving the problems… with more and more rainforest being destroyed."
Ending the use of palm oil may not be the answer. "Going to a boycott could cause more problems," said Dan Strechay, the RSPO's US outreach and engagement representative. "Because if we don't buy palm oil — or ingredients that contain palm oil — it's not like we snap our fingers and we have additional materials to put in. Something else has to be grown to replace it, and other oil seeds may require more land."
But continuing as we are means ignoring the true costs of palm oil: to the environment and people living in palm-oil-producing areas. Said Zimmerman,"If the humans aren't doing well, the orangutans are not going to do well."
So, what do we do now? Eating fewer processed foods, buying locally, and otherwise voting with your dollars is a start. Keeping companies accountable for meeting their stated deadlines around sourcing sustainable palm oil is also key.
Ruiz says the next step is asking suppliers and traders to create more transparency around their reporting, and the public can help. "We have huge influence over these brands," she said. "The key here is to use that buying power we have as consumers and demand that companies do better."
This story originally appeared in Asparagus Magazine. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
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Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
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