Environmental Concerns Over Palm Oil

Feb 20, 2014

In the past 20 years, cultivation of palm oil — a widespread ingredient used in everything from packaged snack foods to soaps and detergents — has wiped out more than 30,000 square miles of rainforests and contributed to extensive social conflict in forest communities.

In an effort to mitigate these ethical concerns, Kellogg’s announced last week that it would only purchase palm oil from suppliers that actively protect rainforests and respect human rights.

NPR’s Allison Aubrey joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson and Robin Young to discuss her research on whether palm oil is actually an ideal ingredient at all.


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Kellogg announced this week that it will only buy palm oil from companies that don't destroy rainforest to produce it. Palm oil is an additive. It's used in all kinds of packaged snack foods - from cookies to Pringles to Pop Tarts. And increasingly, the world is consuming a lot more of it. But as imports of palm oil grows, so do the concerns about it - everything from the environmental toll that we heard about Kellogg thinking about, to the toll it takes on child labor sometimes involved in making it. And there are nutritional concerns for people that eat it, which probably includes you. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us to talk about the pressure on the food industry to make some changes here. Allison, welcome.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there, Jeremy. Yeah, probably includes lots of it.

HOBSON: Yeah. Well, why has it become such a common ingredient that we're all eating so much of?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, you might remember that many packaged foods and baked goods used to contain trans fats. But about 10 years ago, it was becoming clear that the fat was really bad for us because it clogs our arteries. So the food industry was looking for alternatives, and palm oil has been one replacement. It's cheap. It gives the food industry what they're looking for in terms of texture and shelf life. But palm oil is far from ideal. It's highly processed. It's got a lot of saturated fat. So, you know, most dieticians would say consume it sparingly.

HOBSON: Well, you say it's cheap. Why is it so inexpensive?

AUBREY: Well, palm oil is produced from palm trees on huge plantations. The two largest producers are Indonesia and Malaysia. And what has happened in these countries - as has been documented by environmental groups and others - is that there has been massive burning and clear-cutting of forests - really biologically diverse lands - to make way for the palm plantations. So given this massive scale, the producers can make a lot of oil relatively cheaply. It's exported and used all over the world, not just in foods but also in soaps and other products.

HOBSON: And we talked about the environmental impacts there. What about the impacts on humans that are in these places...

AUBREY: Right.

HOBSON: ...human rights violations and the working conditions on some of these plantations.

AUBREY: That's right. Well, in recent years, human rights groups and journalists have investigated the conditions on the ground. And what they've documented on some plantations is pretty disturbing. For example, instances reported where employers will hold the passports or the papers of their workers while the workers are living and working on the plantation, pay them low wages and then charge them high prices to sleep and eat while they're working there. So it's definitely been described as exploitation.

I spoke to folks at the Rainforest Action Network. They've been very involved and have spent a lot of time on the ground there, and they say another issue is children working in the industry. What sometimes happens, they say, is that when workers are trying to meet production quotas, if they're not close to fulfilling a quota, they might bring in children to help.

HOBSON: Hmm. And is there any momentum for change? We heard about Kellogg's.

AUBREY: Yes, definitely. You know, I should point out that as in any industry, there's a lot of variation. There are producers out there making sustainable palm oil, taking steps to protect forests and human rights. There's a group called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil that sets standards. And increasingly, the supply of sustainable oil is growing, and there are lots of new commitments for change.

Now, you mentioned Kellogg's at the top. That happened just this week. And, you know, Kellogg makes Pop-Tarts and Pringles, things that have trace amount of palm oil in them, but they're basically saying, hey, look, from here on out, we're only going to work with suppliers who are buying from producers who are protecting the forests and human rights.

Some of the advocacy groups, like the folks at the Rainforest Action Network, told me these kinds of commitments are very encouraging, but they say, you know, we're not ready to say the problem is solved here. They want to keep the pressure on these companies to make sure that the commitments on paper turn into real action on the ground.

HOBSON: NPR's Allison Aubrey joining us from Washington. Allison, thanks.

AUBREY: All right. Thanks so much, Jeremy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.