What’s palm oil?
Palm oil is most widely produced edible vegetable oil and comes from the African oil palm tree. These trees grow well in tropical areas with abundant rainfall. It is found in many, many products we eat and use every day, including cookies, crackers, candy, frozen dinners, cosmetics, shampoo, lotion, and pet food. It is also used as a biofuel.
What’s the problem?
The demand for palm oil is increasing and rainforests are being logged then burned to make space for oil palm plantations on an incomprehensible scale. Worldwide, 17 million acres of rainforest are lost each year to industrial agriculture, including palm oil production. That’s over one third of the state of Oklahoma – in one year.
Rainforests are home to millions of species and are the world’s treasure troves of biodiversity. Countless species have gone extinct or are on the verge of extinction due to this destruction. This includes the wild counterparts of some of the Zoo’s most loved species, including orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and Asian elephants. Palm oil production is rapidly spreading from Malaysia and Indonesia to tropical Africa and South America.
The palm oil problem affects people as well and plants and animals. Palm oil is a huge industry that employs millions of people. At certified sustainable plantations and mills, workers and their families have decent wages, housing, and access to schools and health clinics. At non-certified plantations and mills, conditions for workers and their families are not regulated and can be deplorable. Also, rainforests absorb and store huge quantities of carbon from human-caused carbon dioxide emissions. Reducing these forests speeds up climate change, which causes increasingly erratic weather patterns around the world, and that’s a huge problem for all of us.
Why not boycott palm oil?
As the human population increases, the demand for edible oil increases. Oil palms are the most productive and efficient oil producing crops, generating more oil on less land. If palm oil is boycotted, another crop, like soy and canola, will take its place and require more land to produce the same amount. Additionally, major palm oil producing countries, like Malaysia and Indonesia, already struggle with poverty. Palm oil is a huge part of their economy. Without it, millions more people would be unemployed.
What is the Zoo doing?
The Zoo used money from its Round Up for Conservation Fund to partner with Rainforest Trust to buy land in Sumatra in 2016. The Zoo’s money purchased 13,000 acres of forest. The total area purchased was over 200,000 acres. This land is now designated as a protected area--safe from oil palm development and regularly patrolled to prevent illegal activity. Tigers, elephants and orangutans that live there are also protected from poachers. This year, the Zoo is using money from the Round Up for Conservation Fund to partner with Rainforest Trust to protect forest in Borneo. The total area that will be protected is over 900,000 acres. The Zoo’s money safeguards 18,248 of these acres.
The Zoo is also a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). RSPO is a non-profit organization that develops and implements global standards for sustainable palm oil. Palm oil plantations and mills have to meet several criteria to be certified as sustainable by RSPO, including not harming wildlife that enter the plantation, providing good living and working conditions for employees and their families, using the land as productively as possible, using pesticides responsibly, and not expanding to land with high conservation value. As an RSPO member, the Zoo raises awareness about the palm oil problem and promotes the use of certified sustainable palm oil.
What can you do?
If you have answered “yes” when asked to “Round Up” your purchases at the Zoo, you have already helped protect rainforests, orangutans, tigers, elephants and hundreds more species. You have the power to help protect rainforests and endangered species every day by choosing to buy products made with certified sustainable palm oil. Please download this palm oil shopping app for iPhone or Android, developed by our fellow RSPO member, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. It’s easy to use and will help you make the right choices for a healthier planet.
– Dr. Rebecca Snyder, Zoo conservation and science curator
Photo credits: Cheyenne Mountain Zoo