Candy time, otherwise known as Halloween, presents an opportunity to become aware of an international environmental issue that makes its way into our homes every day. With a wide variety of candy at your disposal this time of year, ingredient lists allow discovery of just how entwined palm oil is in our lives. Chocolate, licorice, hard sugar candies and everything in between most likely contains palm oil. Palm oil is in more than 50 percent of products in the grocery stores from milk to makeup and of course, candy.
Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil grown in lush climates around the world. In the past 30 years, palm oil production has grown remarkably, and today about a third of all vegetable oil used worldwide is derived from the oil of palm trees. Eighty five percent of all palm oil produced is exported from Indonesia and Malaysia. Palm oil plantations are created by slash and burning rainforests, which destroys wildlife habitat and releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. This habitat destruction has led to vast declines in orangutans, tigers and other endangered species.
Indonesia forests are currently on fire, and recent estimates suggest that the fires are producing more greenhouse gases than the entire U.S. economy. The burning of peat is the reason why. Indonesia is home to dense rainforests thickened by a base layer of peat, which is carbon rich organic matter or soil. When peat burns it releases thousands of years of carbon into the atmosphere and burns extensively until all of the fuel is exhausted.
Fires expand palm oil plantations allowing big companies to reap the benefits of a large burn. Those big companies then make their way into your everyday lives through crackers, lotions and soaps, connecting you to the devastation around the world.
So what can you do? Many organizations are encouraging consumers to buy sustainable palm oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). And member companies of the RSPO such as Hershey’s are boasting their sustainability claims. But the story goes deeper. The RSPO provides criteria for sustainable palm oil yet being a member does not ensure your supply chains are sustainable on the ground, and certified sustainable palm oil is not guaranteed to be deforestation-free. Laurel Sutherlin, spokesperson for the Rainforest Action Network, describes it best, “The RSPO has failed to live up to it’s potential. Standards are missing that impact climate issues and labor protections, and the RSPO has a spotty track record of enforcing standards they do have.”
It’s up to the companies to ensure the palm oil used in their products is being grown by suppliers who are maintaining sustainable practices on a daily basis. Sutherlin adds: “You can’t outsource your values to the RSPO,” implying companies need to have the moral standards to value the environmental and social impacts of producing their products. In the same way, we as consumers need to have the same standards as we voice our opinions through our dollars in the grocery store and encourage companies to improve their palm oil standards. Large companies care about the public’s opinion — join the Rainforest Action Network (ran.org) and The Union of Concerned Scientists (ucsusa.org) in their work to encourage large companies to adopt strong deforestation-free and socially-just palm oil commitments.
PepsiCo, a member of the RSPO and maker of Quaker Chewy Granola Bars, Cheetos and Lays potato chips to name a few, recently announced their palm oil commitment with one big loophole: their commitment does not include the world’s biggest producer of palm oil, Indonesia. Empty commitments from big companies such as this are not improving the social and environmental effects of palm oil.
This Halloween pick up your candy and the milk you’re going to dip your chocolate in, turn it over and read the ingredients. Palm oil is identified on labels as more than 30 alternative names such as palm kernel oil, palmitate, and in soaps as sodium laureth sulfate. It’s imperative that we as consumers connect the palm oil that has infiltrated our lives with the worldwide devastation of significant habitats.