Saturday, March 23, 2013

Thinking about palm oil…

With every leg of travel, I’m always excited to see the countryside along the way. And we’ve passed through some incredibly scenic, natural landscapes. However I was shocked, if not downright disgusted, at what I saw out the train window almost the entire ride from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur and then on the bus from KL to the Cameron Highlands. I shouldn’t have been surprised, since when we connected in KL a few weeks ago I saw the same thing from the plane: palm oil plantations. As far as the eye can see, nothing but palm oil trees. And what’s palm oil used for? Other than everything, it’s most notably used in confectionary chocolate. That’s right. Our beloved chocolate bars (like Kit Kat and almost every commercial candy bar, Milo is a big one around here), are one of the reasons the Malaysian rainforest* is being decimated, and as a result, delicate species like the orangutan are being pushed to the brink of extinction.

But really, when are any of us going to see an orangutan anyway, and Kit Kats are just so damn tasty.

I know it’s abstract to think that the purchase of one measly chocolate bar in Canada could contribute to a species’ demise, but with every purchase, we make a choice, whether we know it or not.

I don’t believe that just because land is fertile, that we should just rip down whatever is there in the name of job creation and poverty alleviation. Yes, oil plantations create jobs, but people also rely on the forest for their livelihood in its natural state.

Oil palms are a high-yield crop, which is excellent. So if we use it in a limited way for necessary things, that’s great, but if we use it for useless non-foods like chocolate bars, that’s just a frivolous waste of precious resources.

Furthermore, monoculture agriculture is never good for endemic species, and there are other ways to farm, but when the demand is high, and profit is the main goal, you’re going to have massive plantations, because it’s most efficient.

The bottom line is we need to focus on creating jobs and alleviating poverty, but not at the cost of already endangered species. Without getting into my view of world economies and capitalism—and the fact that neither of these systems can have the limitless growth they require on a planet with finite resources—we have got to come up with better ways to serve the people AND the animals that live on this delicate planet. We have to stop acting like the earth's resources only exist so that we can exploit them (in the name of growth and progress) and start being stewards of the land.

I’m not calling for the end to all palm oil production. I’m concerned about the continued deforestation, when I feel there are ways to limit our use so that we can work with what we have. We need to become conscious consumers, aware of what’s actually involved in creating the things we buy.

If we’re going to feed a planet of 20 billion by 2050, we’re going to all have to start doing with less, and separating our wants from our needs. There are only so many resources, and if we use them carelessly, we’ll be in a much bigger bind. And honestly, if we’re willing to choose a chocolate bar over an orangutan, then there is no hope for this planet.

Only after the last tree has been cut down
Only after the last river is poisoned
Only after the last fish has been caught
Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten

 – Cree prophecy

Will you join me in making a personal commitment to avoid or limit your consumption of palm oil?

This is what's being cut down to grow palm oil.

Bye-bye misty rainforest, hello processed junk.

*Not just the Malaysian rainforest is being mown down for palm oil plantations, Indonesia's forests are being affected too. We probably all remember this Greenpeace campaign.

Further resources:
Say no to palm oil
Ethical Consumer - list of palm oil free products
Palm oil free alternatives - from Borneo Orangutan Survival


  1. Wow. Very well put. You're so eloquent Amb!
    Definitely food for thought (pun kind-of intended!)
    It does go to show that big companies can listen and can make ethically responsible choices and still make a profit!