The expose of hidden ingredient palm oil in many of Britain’s top products is certainly going to cause alarm for many green-natured citizens. With the revelation that brands such as Persil, Bold and Fairy Liquid, along with chocolate including Mars, Cadbury’s and Kit Kat, all contain palm oil, it's certainly damning. And for those like me who wish to stay on the greener side of life, many may choose to shun these products in favour of ecologically sounder and more sustainable ingredients.
But why is palm oil so bad? Well for starters it is the determining factor for the loss of tropical rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia. With an unimaginable pace, up to thirty square miles of forest is being felled daily to make way for barren, uniformed palm oil plantations. Palm Oil created by locals, for a foreign market, at a cheap price. Whilst we munch on our margarine smothered breakfasts, snack on chocolate through the day, wash and dry our rich western clothing, we are steadily marching ourselves through a logged, burnt and obliterated rainforest.
Sumatra, home to orangutans, or at least it was. Since 1900, 90% of the Sumatran orangutan population has been lost. Tearing down forest and replacing with plantations creates a biological desert, with 90% of the previous fauna no longer being able to survive on the meagre remains of their habitat. This great ape is wise, he is intelligent and he is one of our closest cousins, yet as a species, humans continue their destructive force on his home. It isn’t only orangutans of course who are facing this peril. The rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra are unique, and therefore thickly rich with unique creatures. The Sumatran tiger and rhino both claim the smallest of their family genus. The black sun bear too is the smallest of all bears. Sumatra and Borneo host 217 and 210 mammal species respectively, not to mention the hundreds of bird, fish, insects and plant species native to these forests.
It isn’t that this plight has been ignored before and it isn’t a simple case of damning the entire industry. Both island communities need plantations for survival, their lives depend on it, just as the orangutans lives depend on the rainforests. However the lack of sustainability is brought into question. The palm oil is a fantastic plant. Quick growing and highly productive it yields far more oil than soy or rapeseed. Yet rather than create plantations on land that is already pasteurised, that is host to fields, or opting to replant on existing palm oil fields, it is the forest with its rich soil that is continuously culled at an astonishing rate.
More astonishingly, the average westerner is consuming it in vast quantities. Hidden in everyday products, often under the guise of “vegetable oil,” a leading British newspaper uncovered that 43 of the nation’s top 100 selling products contained the oil. More worryingly, after taking out drinks, pet foods and other non consumable products, 32 out of 62, that’s over half, contained this destruction incurring product. And with no legal requirement to denote the oil’s origin, consumers such as me are left desperately trying to avoid products, or find ones which reveal legitimately used sustainable palm oil sources. So the next time you’re cruising down supermarket aisles, picking up “BOGOFF’s”, throwing cans, and packets, and bags into the trolley, spare a thought for our cousin the orangutan, as he clings to a solitary tree swaying in the chainsaw droning breeze.
Photo: ZUMA Press