Expanding palm oil plantations threaten endangered species

One product most of us use every day at home, work and school is changing the landscape for some of the world’s most beloved and endangered species. The product is palm oil, the most widely-used vegetable oil in the world. The way it’s made is hurting the survival chances for tigers, orangutans, rhinoceroses, clouded leopards, elephants, sun bears, hornbills, monkeys and others.

What is palm oil

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil made from the fruit of the African oil palm tree. People in many countries outside the United States use palm oil as their main cooking oil. It also is a source of biofuel.

Here in the United States, we also find it in many packaged foods, such as bread, cereals, cookies, crackers, chips, trail mix, power bars, instant ramen noodles, ice cream, soy milk, frozen meals, pasta sauce, salad dressing, pudding, bottled beverages, condiments, margarine, candy and pet food. It further pops up in detergents, home cleaners and personal care products such as makeup, shampoo, lotions, mouthwash, petroleum jelly, ointments, baby care products and more.

Packaged-food makers prize this versatile oil because it gives their products a smooth, creamy consistency, is trans-fat free and acts as a natural preservative giving products a long shelf life. Palm oil holds up well under high temperatures, which is important for home cooking and baking.

It is considered to be a high-quality, high-yield crop. That means oil palms give the most oil per acre of land compared withother vegetable oil sources, such as soybeans. So, it takes less farmland to make the same amount of oil. This makes palm oil cheaper as well. Oil palm plantations also provide jobs for local people in the countries where they operate.

How does this affect wildlife

It’s all about real estate — location, location, location.

African oil palms originally came from West Africa, but grow very well in hot, rainy, tropical places. In order to plant acres upon acres of oil palm trees, some companies cut down or burn huge sections of tropical rain forest in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Doing so, they can also make money from selling the tree lumber. But, those same tropical rain forests are home to many endangered species, including Sumatran tigers, orangutans, Asian elephants, sun bears and clouded leopards.

To thrive naturally, wild animals need a stable home. Within their habitat, they have everything they need to survive: water, shelter and lots of space for finding the right foods and mates, and for dodging predators. Each kind of plant and animal does a job as part of its ecosystem that supports conditions in the habitat for the whole community. So, the diversity of trees, shrubs, epiphytes and other flowering plants in a tropical rain forest makes it a good home for the animals living there. No more rain forest, no more rain forest ecosystem.

Since 2007, the United Nations Environment Program has recognized palm oil plantations as the leading cause of rain forest destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia. Worldwide, the amount of land converted into palm oil plantations jumped from 15 million acres in 1990 to 40 million acres in 2011, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. With only an estimated 300 individuals left in the wild, Sumatran tigers especially can’t afford to lose home territory at that rate.

What you can do

According to wildlife protection groups, there is enough land cleared already to produce the entire supply of palm oil for the world without cutting down any more rain forest, even with bigger demand in the future.

Palm oil that is harvested responsibly, without harming critical wildlife habitat, is called “100 percent deforestation-free, certified sustainable palm oil.” Some concerned retail companies have joined conservation groups and palm oil businesses to form the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. The roundtable tracks palm oil production and trade, and sets standards for certifying a supply of palm oil as sustainable. Other organizations monitoring the issue include the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Rainforest Action Network, WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund), Forest Heroes and the Palm Oil Innovation Group.

Here in the South Sound, we can help to make this sustainable, deforestation-free palm oil the best business choice for big buyers.

People are starting to encourage the makers of their favorite products to buy only this kind of palm oil. If companies choose only responsible palm oil, their suppliers will want to make it. Lots of wildlife organizations, zoos, nature centers, environmental groups and concerned people around the world are getting involved. Actor Harrison Ford has visited Indonesia to help draw attention to the situation for Showtime’s series, “Years of Living Dangerously.”

Two Girl Scouts, Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen, showed that you don’t have to be famous to make a difference. Their love of orangutans and concern over palm oil in Girl Scout cookies drove them to pressure the Girl Scouts of the USA and cookie-maker Kellogg’s to make their products without harming rain forests. Kellogg’s has now publicly committed to move toward only RSPO-approved, deforestation-free palm oil sources by the end of 2015. Vorva and Tomtishen also helped to create a “Rain forest Hero” badge, which rewards scouts for learning more about palm oil in American life.