CRUEL OIL ~ How Palm Oil Harms Health, Rainforest & Wildlife

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Press Release
 
Palm oil production is killing orangutans and other endangered wildlife.
Orangutans are literally dying for cookies. Thanks in part to a palm oil trade propped up by indifferent corporations and authoritarian regimes, the rainforest habitats of the last remaining Sumatran orangutans, tigers, and rhinoceroses are being destroyed.
 
Keebler, Oreo, Mrs. Fields, Pepperidge Farm and other companies use palm oil in some of their cookies. It's found increasingly in crackers, pastries, cereals, and microwave popcorn. Though not as unhealthy as partially hydrogenated oil, palm oil still promotes heart disease.
 
Tell Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott to enact a corporate policy on palm oil that would help protect the lives of humans and orangutans alike. Take action now!
 
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Palm oil, one of the world's leading agricultural commodities, is widely used as a food ingredient and cooking oil.
Unfortunately, not only does palm oil promote heart disease, but the vast plantations that grow oil palm trees have contributed to the destruction of the rainforest and wildlife of Southeast Asia. Those side effects are not broadly recognized—and avoided—by governments, food manufacturers, or consumers.
 
A new U.S. government regulation requires that, by January 1, 2006, food labels list a product's content of trans fat, which comes from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and is a major cause of heart disease. Many food processors are seeking to eliminate trans fat by switching to other oils. Palm oil is one such alternative.
 
This report describes palm oil's chief environmental and health impacts and encourages food processors, consumers,and government and international agencies to support the use of oils that are better for both human and environmental health.
 
Palm Oil and Human Health

Palm oil is used around the world in such foods as margarine, shortening, baked goods, and candies. Biomedical research indicates that palm oil, which is high in saturated fat and low in polyunsaturated fat, promotes heart disease. Though less harmful than partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, it is far more conducive to heart disease than such heart-protective liquid oils as olive, soy, and canola. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, World Health Organization, and other health authorities have urged reduced consumption of oils like palm oil.

Palm Oil Plantations

Palm oil is forecast to be the world's most produced and internationally traded edible oil by 2012. Malaysia and Indonesia account for 83 percent of production and 89 percent of global exports. Oil palm is grown as an industrial plantation crop, often (especially in Indonesia) on newly cleared rainforest or peat-swamp forests rather than on already degraded land or disused agricultural land. Since the 1970s, the area planted with oil palm in Indonesia has grown over 30-fold to almost 12,000 square miles. In Malaysia, the area devoted to oil palm has increased 12-fold to 13,500 square miles.

Ecological Impacts of Oil Palm

Indonesia and Malaysia have, concomitant with the destruction of enormous tracts of tropical rainforest, some of the world's longest lists of threatened wildlife. Of the more than 400 land mammal species of Indonesia, 15 are critically endangered and another 125 threatened. Of Malaysia's nearly 300 land mammal species, 6 are critically endangered and 41 threatened. The numbers of threatened species climb higher when terrestrial reptiles, amphibians, and birds are included. Moreover, certain animals, such as the orangutan, are only found in these countries; when their rainforest habitat vanishes, so will they.
 
Five mammals exemplify the impending disaster: the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, Asian elephant, and Sumatran rhinoceros. Each of those species is endangered, with the three eponymous Sumatran species critically endangered. They once flourished in precisely those areas where rainforests have since been cleared for oil palm.
 
Oil palm plantations, along with logging, fires, and other factors, destroy rainforest habitat, hinder migration patterns, and block travel corridors. Roads and plantations fragment the rainforest, facilitate encroaching settlements, and make animals accessible to illegal hunting and poaching. If they enter plantations while searching for food outside the rainforest, animals may be killed by workers. They are also at risk when plantation companies set forest fires to clear land for oil palm; some fires burn out of control, demolishing much larger areas than anticipated.
 
Plantations also pollute the soil and water with pesticides and untreated palm oil-mill effluent, cause soil erosion and increased sedimentation in rivers, and cause air pollution due to forest fires.
 
The demand for palm oil is forecast to double by 2020. To achieve that production increase, 1,160 new square miles will have to be planted every year for 20 years. Indonesia has 26,300 square miles more forest land officially allocated for new oil palm plantations; Malaysia has almost 3,000 square miles more. The expected thousands of square miles of new plantings on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo could kill off the remaining orangutans, rhinos, and tigers.

The U.S. Market

Because of the impending trans-fat labeling regulation, many food manufacturers are seeking alternatives to partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. If companies replaced the 2.5 billion pounds of partially hydrogenated oil used annually in foods needing a solid fat with palm oil, U.S. palm oil imports would triple over the 2003 level. Such an increase would require about 1,240 square miles of new oil palm plantations—an area that represents rainforest habitat for up to 65 Sumatran rhinos, 54 elephant families, 65 Sumatran tigers, and 2,500 orangutans.

Does it Have to Be This Way?

More healthful substitutes are available for most uses of both partially hydrogenated oil and palm oil, and food manufacturers and consumers should seek those out. Where palm oil's use is unavoidable, the oil should be obtained from environmentally sound sources and used in minimal quantities.