Sunday, June 22, 2014

Can One of the World’s Most Ubiquitous Products Clean Up Its Act?

May Contain Palm Oil (Credit: Andrew Breiner/Shutterstock) Click to enlarge.
“There’s been an increase in the use of palm oil in the last decade or so for a lot of reasons,” Calen May-Tobin, Lead Analyst for Tropical Forests at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), told ThinkProgress.  “It’s cheap to produce.  It works well with processed foods.  It is a naturally saturated fat, so it doesn’t have trans fats.”

But there are many conditions tied to the use of palm oil, especially when it comes to the environment and climate change.  The palm oil industry can be a major driver of deforestation, and of the destruction of peat lands, carbon-rich swamps that are drained and burned to establish oil palm plantations.  Both of these practices are ecologically detrimental and significant drivers of greenhouse gas emissions; deforestation is responsible for around 10 percent of global emissions.  Palm oil production also brings with it a number of labor and human rights issues and has exacerbated the threat to several endangered species by destroying their habitats.

While public pressure may have driven a number of entities to reconsider their palm oil practices, the size of the industry and pace of the growth adds to the challenge of bringing reliable oversight and best practices into the mainstream.

There’s a major incentive to clean up palm oil practices, however.  Oil palm trees produce four to ten times more oil than other vegetable oil crops and if production is done sustainably, it could have major implications for food production and become a far more appealing alternative to other oils requiring more agricultural land conversion for the same yield.  With global vegetable oil demand rising, this could have serious environmental benefits.  Recent commitments from major palm oil companies up-and-down the supply chain have made this long-shot goal appear more attainable and raise the question:  could 2014 could be the year the tide turns on palm oil production?

Can One of the World’s Most Ubiquitous Products Clean Up Its Act?

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