Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Why is Palm Oil So Bad?

Food
Why is Palm Oil So Bad?

Consumer knowledge on the destructiveness of palm oil production—found in everything from ice cream and crackers to detergents and cosmetics, is rising. Increased awareness is sorely needed, as more and more forests are cleared to make way for palm oil plantations.

Palm oil is among the biggest threats driving iconic wildlife species like the Sumatran orangutan to the brink of extinction in Indonesia. Photo credit: Rainforest Action Network

There are a lot of questions around the use of palm oil. The Rainforest Action Network, which has been working on this issue for some time, has an excellent factsheet on palm oil, which is briefly excerpted here:

What is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is a globally traded agricultural commodity that touches our lives in every trip we make to the supermarket. Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil derived from pulping the fruit of oil palms originally native to Africa. Palm oil is commonly used as a cooking oil in Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of Brazil and its consumption is on the rise worldwide. The recent rise in the use of palm oil in the U.S. food industry has resulted largely from changed labeling requirements that have caused a switch away from using trans fats.

Why is Palm Oil a Problem?

Palm oil has become one of the world’s leading causes of rainforest destruction. Unchecked expansion has pushed palm oil plantations into the heart of some of the world’s most culturally and biologically diverse ecosystems and palm oil is among the biggest threats driving iconic wildlife species like the Sumatran orangutan to the brink of extinction in Indonesia. This large-scale destruction of rainforests and carbon-rich peatland landscapes is releasing globally significant quantities of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, making palm oil a major global driver of human induced climate change. The production of palm oil is also responsible for widespread human rights violations as palm oil companies often forcefully remove Indigenous Peoples and rural communities from their lands.

Fighting Back—One Man’s Effort in Indonesia

The rainforests of Indonesia are among the most biodiverse on the planet, containing 10 percent of the world’s known plants, 12 percent of mammals, and 17 percent of all known bird species. The threat from deforestation is huge, as only half of the country’s original forests remain, with an estimated 2 million acres lost every year.

Rudi Putra, a biologist who has been dismantling illegal palm oil plantations that are causing massive deforestation and threatening to wipe out the Sumatran rhino, orangutans, tigers, elephants and other endangered species, just won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for his efforts. He is protecting the Leuser Ecosystem in Aceh; it is the only place on Earth where tigers, elephants, rhinos and orangutans can be found living together in the wild.

Working with local communities and local police, Putra and his colleagues were able to enforce land protection laws and shut down illegal palm oil plantations. Watch this short video on Rudi Putra’s story: 

Despite this success, the local government in Aceh is now trying to legally open up more land to palm oil development.

Yes—Think Globally, Act Locally

Ultimately it is up to consumers to know what is in what they eat. As with sweatshop labor, there is a high price to pay for our modern goods. Urging companies to cut palm oil out of their supply chains is one solution. And supporting the Rudi Putra’s of the world is another —which comes down to awareness of what is happening around the world, in our own communities and within our own families. There are fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinos left in the wild. Is it worth wiping them out for a processed food ingredient?

Take Action

Sign the petition to protect the Leuser Ecosystem as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And call on snack food companies such as General Mills and Nestle to only use sustainably sourced palm oil.

--------

YOU ALSO MIGHT LIKE

P&G to Eliminate Deforestation From Palm Oil Products

9 Arrested After Death-Defying Protest of P&G's Use of Palm Oil

Palm Oil Company Ordered to Pay $30 Million for Illegal Rainforest Destruction 

--------

Fish exposed to endocrine-disrupting compounds, like this inland silverside fish, can pass on health problems to future generations. Bill Stagnaro / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 3.0

By Brian Bienkowski

Fish exposed to endocrine-disrupting compounds pass on health problems to future generations, including deformities, reduced survival, and reproductive problems, according to a new study.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declares victory during the Labor Party Election Night Function at Auckland Town Hall on Oct. 17, 2020 in Auckland, New Zealand. Hannah Peters / Getty Images

Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister who has emerged as a leader on the climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, has won a second term in office.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Poor eating habits, lack of exercise, genetics, and a bunch of other things are known to be behind excessive weight gain. But, did you know that how much sleep you get each night can also determine how much weight you gain or lose?

Read More Show Less
A woman holds a handful of vitamin C. VO IMAGES / Getty Images

By Laura Beil

Consumers have long turned to vitamins and herbs to try to protect themselves from disease. This pandemic is no different — especially with headlines that scream "This supplement could save you from coronavirus."

Read More Show Less
Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Sir David Attenborough look at a piece of ice core from the Antarctic during a naming ceremony for the polar research ship the RSS Sir David Attenborough on Sept. 26, 2019 in Birkenhead, England. Asadour Guzelian - WPA Pool / Getty Images

By Elliot Douglas

In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

Support Ecowatch