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Joel Makower

Joel Makower

Posted: September 26, 2005 12:28 PM

Oreos, Orangutans and Unintended Consequences


One of the realities of the world of environmentalism is how much everything is interconnected. You tug on one thread of one ecosystem and another thread unravels. It’s a classic problem that government agencies have in creating good environmental policy and law: protect the spotted owl but potentially imperil loggers’ jobs; promote economic development in impoverished areas but further stress the local water supply; allow local residents to build nice homes on barrier islands, and reduce hurricane protection for millions. And so it goes.

The latest story of that has to do with, of all things, Oreos and orangutans.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Adminsitration enacted a rule that requires food makers to disclose the trans fat content of their products, just as they now disclose measures of other fats, cholesterol, sugar, and protein on their labels. As many as 100,000 cardiac deaths a year could be prevented in the U.S. alone by replacing artery-clogging trans fat with healthier nonhydrogenated polyunsaturated or monounsaturated oils, according to a 1999 joint report by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

So, many companies are switching to palm oil, which is desired because it is semi-solid at room temperature, making it useful in products such as cookies, crackers, spreads, and bars. Palm oil can now be found in such snacking favorites as Nabisco Golden Oreos, Chips Ahoy! Cookies, and Cadbury Finger Dark Cookies. Palm oil also is in candy bars, including Snickers, Milky Way, and Butterfinger. Health food producers and retailers, such as Whole Foods and Arrowhead Mills, also promote and use palm oil.

But a new report from Friends of the Earth says that orangutans are facing extinction due to the destruction of rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia to set up palm plantations to sate U.S. and other western palates. More than 80% of the world's palm oil comes from those two countries, where it is grown primarily on land that once was rainforest or peat-swamp forests. When those forest areas are cleared, habitat for endangered animals is destroyed.

The report finds that:

Almost 90% of orangutan habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia has now been destroyed. Some experts estimate that 5,000 orangutan perish as a result every year. The researchers found that oil-palm plantations have now become the primary cause of the orangutans' decline, wiping out its rainforest home in Borneo and Sumatra.

It’s not just the orangutan. A report earlier this year from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) revealed that, in addition to the Bornean and Sumatran orangutans, three other species were being endangered by palm farming: the Sumatran tiger, the Asian elephant, and the Sumatran rhinoceros.

CSPI, Environmental Defense, the International Primate Protection League, Rainforest Relief, WALHI/Friends of the Earth Indonesia, and a dozen other organizations from around the world are urging the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other international aid agencies not to fund oil-palm development projects.

Animals aren’t the only creatures being harmed in the push for palm. As with many other industries in developing countries, local communities and native populations also are being exploited by oil-palm farmers. According to Friends of the Earth:

The oil-palm plantation business is the most conflict-ridden sector in Indonesia, and one of the most polluting. Plantations are often forcibly established on land traditionally owned by indigenous peoples, and plantation development has repeatedly been associated with violent conflict. In Indonesia, between 1998 and 2002 alone, 479 people were reported as having been tortured in conflicts defending community rights, and dozens of people have been killed in land-tenure disputes. In many plantations, workers have to contend with low wages and appalling living conditions. The palm-oil industry may create jobs and generate export revenue, but it can also trap entire communities in poverty.

What to do about all this? The solutions called for by Friends of the Earth report are wanting, to say the least. FoE is hoping to press the U.K. government to strengthen a Company Law Reform Bill currently in Parliament to encourage companies to better meet “the needs of communities and the environment.”

That’s it: Write a letter to the U.K. government. Somehow, I doubt that will do much to change this situation.

CSPI’s call to action is slightly more direct: it is asking the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (FDA’s parent agency) “to encourage food processors to move away from partially hydrogenated oils and palm oil and toward more healthful oils.”

But it likely will take far more than letters and petitions to change this sad state of affairs. It will require a more holistic approach to governance -- both political and corporate governance -- that considers entire economic and social systems, and not merely patchwork solutions to serious problems.

Can we balance Americans’ nutrition, tastes, and the fate of the world’s endangered species? What sort of pressure will it take for food companies to source their products more sustainably? Is this a matter for government policy, corporate policy, or the marketplace to decide? What are the alternatives (and what are the unintended consequences of each)?

And, perhaps most significantly: Does anyone outside of the environmental community really care?