I found the below article and felt it was powerful in that it represents a good gone bad model that I think is consistently happening throughout business today. Palm oil...good, transfat free...good, deforestation...bad, global warming...very bad. Notice the sophistication and coordination of efforts as the producers of Palm oil seek to attain the 'sustainable' tag for use with their product, a total 'greenwashing' effort whose purpose is primarily to defend an industry that is not regulated and that is doing significant environmental damage through it's practices.

Unfortunately there is not, in my opinion, an easy answer. We want to eat healthy, we need to eat healthy, the issue is the complete disconnect we have between consumer products and the cost to the environment that is incurred by their production. We go to the market, pick the item off the shelf, and have no idea that by doing so we are supporting a global food supply system that is ruthless in it's methods and driven by the bottom line. For me personally it drives the message that we need to know what we are consuming, and the importance of shopping locally, the price paid because of the disconnection so many of us have with our food supply chain is simply too high and a price the planet, as in this example, cannot afford to pay.

Full text of the article and link follow below.

Bob Jellison
Portland State University


EarthTalk is a Q&A column from E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that palm oil, common in snack foods and health & beauty products, is destroying rainforests? If so, what can consumers do about it? -- Emma Miniscalco, via e-mail

It's no wonder that worldwide demand for palm oil has surged in recent years. Long used in cosmetics, palm oil is now all the rage in the snack food industry, since it is transfat-free and therefore seen as healthier than the shortening it replaces.

But to produce palm oil in large enough quantities to meet growing demand, farmers across Southeast Asia have been clearing huge swaths of biodiversity-rich tropical rainforest to make room for massive palm plantations. Today palm oil production is the largest cause of deforestation in Indonesia and other equatorial countries with dwindling expanses of tropical rainforest. Indonesia's endangered orangutan population, which depends upon the rainforest, has dwindled by as much as 50 percent in recent years.

The clearing of these forests is a big factor in global warming, given how much carbon dioxide (CO2) trees store when left alone. Once forests are cut, tons of CO2 heads skyward. Also, when not replaced by palm oil plantations, rainforests help maintain water resources by absorbing rainfall and then releasing it into streams and rivers, thus minimizing flooding and soil depletion.

Simply boycotting palm oil and the products containing it may not help, as reduced demand could force the companies behind the plantations to instead initiate more intensive timber harvesting and a widespread conversion of the land to agriculture, which would add a heavy pollution load onto the already compromised land, air and water. It is up to the countries involved in palm oil production to regulate the industry and budget sufficient funds for enforcement. But with huge profits coming in from the sale of palm oil, public officials in Indonesia and elsewhere are loathe to clamp down on their golden goose.

Several of the largest palm oil producers have joined forces with banks and nonprofit groups to try to green up the industry. In 2003, some 200 commercial entities in the global palm oil supply chain met and established the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to promote the growth of palm oil in an environmentally friendly manner. RSPO works to develop definitions and criteria for the sustainable production of palm oil, while facilitating the adoption of more green-friendly practices throughout the industry. The group celebrated its first shipment of "sustainable palm oil" to Europe this past November.

Despite progress, many green leaders are skeptical that RSPO has the teeth to make a positive impact on the fast-growing palm oil industry. Greenpeace International considers RSPO to be "little more than greenwash," pointing out that at least one RSPO-certified producer -- United Plantations, a supplier to Nestlé and Unilever -- is deforesting Indonesia's vulnerable peat land forests. And Sinar Mas, another major RSPO player, has cleared tropical rainforest all over the country for its palm oil plantations, and is still expanding rapidly. Greenpeace is calling for a moratorium on deforestation throughout Indonesia so that the RSPO and the government can take stock and then proceed accordingly.

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it here or via e-mail. Read past columns here.


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