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The Problem With Palm Oil

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Want to save rainforests, fight climate change, protect human rights, and reform the globalized food system all at once? Here's a start: check your cabinets, fridge, and gas tank for palm oil.

Last week, two special reports and a new corporate policy highlighted many of the major problems with palm oil, including its effects on global food systems, contributions to climate change, and relationship to illegal logging and forest conversion.

Palm oil causes hunger -- Unless you live in the Twin Cities, you probably missed the Minnesota Star Tribune's week-long series, "In Search of Cheap Food," which explores the impacts of global agribusiness on our environment, economy, and food supply. Monday's article focused on palm oil. Matt McKinney reports that:

"Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world... U.S. consumption of palm oil has tripled from 324,000 tons in 2005 to 1 million tons today. By one estimate, one in 10 products in a U.S. grocery store contain palm oil."

The ubiquity of palm oil in the United States and Europe is driving out the subsistence agriculture that people in Indonesia and Malaysia depend on for food. And since demand for palm oil is rapidly growing, farmers are expanding their plantations deeper into the rainforest.

Palm oil causes climate change -- A major study last week in the journal Conservation Biology shows once again that biofuels made from palm oil cause bigger problems than the ones they are intended to solve. As Reuters reports,

"Clearing land to start plantations typically involves burning huge tracts of forest, a process which produces large amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. The researchers estimate at least 75 years of biofuel production is needed from the plantations to save on emissions anything like the amount of carbon dioxide produced by this burning."

Palm oil relies on illegal deforestation and land grabs -- In a major move at the climate talks in Poznan, Poland, London-based bank HSBC announced plans to drop a third of its forestry clients in Malaysia and Indonesia due to their unsustainable logging and illegal land acquisitions related to palm oil.

HSBC's move is a major step forward in its recognition that palm oil is the leading cause of forest conversion and displacement of communities in Indonesia and Malaysia. HSBC's commitment was spurred by a report by Forest People's Programme, calling on the bank to put the rhetoric of its existing forest policy into actual practice. It's heartening to see that they did.

Also encouraging is the fact that the mainstream media is starting to take note of this important front in the battle against climate change. It's too bad though, that the giant agribusiness companies aren't. Cargill announced last week its intention to acquire more land in Southeast Asia to expand production of palm oil. Learn more here about the problem with palm oil, and how you can take action.

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