Palm Oil Production Threatens Biodiversity

Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, which is used in endless food, health and beauty, and biofuel products. However, palm oil production is implicated in widespread and irreversible damage to the environment, particularly in Southeast Asia. In the recent Web seminar, “Palm Oil, Orangutans and Sustainability: A Beauty Industry Call to Action,” Biruté Mary Galdikas, O.C., Ph.D., of Orangutan Foundation International and Simon Graser University, delved into this troubling situation, focusing on the plight of orangutans, a highly endangered species of great ape.

Now FoodsOrangutan populations have declined 97% this century due to habitat loss and hunting, “often driven by unsustainable palm oil development,” according to Biruté, who notes that orangutans are being killed as “agricultural pests” for palm oil cultivation in the region. These great apes live in the canopy of the rainforest, but because of deforestation (for which Indonesia takes the lead), they have been forced to adapt to being on the ground more often and to change their diet. It is becoming increasingly difficult for orangutans to find forest to which they can return safely.

In addition, palm oil production may be contributing to a larger problem: 40 billion tons of carbon is stored in Indonesia’s peatland forests; burning and clearing have released unprecedented amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Biruté suggests that palm plantations establish themselves in scrubland or already deforested areas, to reduce the threat to orangutans, and that industry focuses on finding an alternative to palm oil to decrease its use.
Since the personal care and food industries are the largest users of palm oil, they offer the best, most effective places to begin addressing the problem, by utilizing only certified sustainable sources of palm oil that will not affect biodiversity. Biruté emphasizes sustainable certification, but warns against green-washing tactics, and that raising standards for certification is imperative.

Companies should cease doing business with destructive palm oil suppliers and use their economic and political influences to advocate for policies to end deforestation and protect peatlands from palm oil expansion. Producers should invest in techniques that maximize sustainable production of palm oil in existing plantations to make the most of existing cultivated areas.

“My very sincere hope is that the health and beauty and cosmetics industry will lead the way in helping to solve this problem,” she states.

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Published in WholeFoods Magazine, October 2010 (published ahead of print on August 28, 2010)