You probably had some palm oil today. If it wasn't in your toothpaste, or your shampoo, it was in the margarine you had at breakfast. Found in roughly half of the products sold in modern supermarkets, it's the world's most popular edible oil.
It's also the cause of one of the world's biggest environmental catastrophes, the decimation of southeast Asia's rainforests. Indonesia has lost enough rain forest to palm plantations since 1967 to cover the entire state of Kentucky. And that's not just horrible for Indonesia. The typical method for clearing rainforests in southeast Asia is to burn them to the ground, which releases vast quantities of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. According to one peer-reviewed study, the rainforests burned in 2010 in just one Indonesian state produced the same carbon emissions as 28 million cars.
The basic problem is that the companies that use palm oil in their products usually have little clue where it comes from, because there are so many middlemen between them and the people growing the palm trees. If they knew they could pay similar prices for palm oil that didn't endanger the planet(and infuriate activists) many of them would stop buying it from rainforest arsonists and other menaces to the environment.
Fortunately, that seems to be exactly what's starting to happen.
Around five years ago, a group of activists came up with an idea they called “traceability.” The idea was simple: companies should be able to know the entire life story of the palm oil they buy, all the way down to the mills where it’s processed, and the very plots of land where it was grown. That way, the theory went, they could avoid buying from plantations carved out of recently cleared rainforest and buy instead from older plantations, or newer ones carved out of less endangered land.
The industry is now starting to catch on. Three weeks ago, Willmar International, the world’s largest palm oil supplier, posted information about its mills and plantations in southeast Asia to a new website that anyone -- rivals, NGOs, journalists -- can access by requesting a password.
The website doesn't just include the names of the mills from which it buys palm oil -- it lets visitors check whether they're in an area that’s been deforested. It also lets people file formal grievances with Wilmar against mills and plantations that seem to be acting unscrupulously. Wilmar already has plans to expand the data it discloses to the site.
Will it work? That's hard to say right now. According to Forest Heroes, an NGO that’s helping Wilmar compile the data on its website, the company is trying to achieve an unprecedented level of transparency for an agricultural supplier. Meeting those high ambitions won't be easy.
But in another sense, the traceability campaign is already a success. Companies that use palm oil are beginning to hold themselves to higher environmental standards than they ever have before. Palm oil buyers like Kellogg and General Mills have pledged to follow Wilmar's lead. And Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts, among many other consumer product companies, have already committed to using only traceable palm oil for their caloric treats.
PepsiCo -- which uses palm oil in popular snacks like Doritos andFritos -- has been a prominent holdout on full traceability. The company claims that it had already made a commitment to zero deforestation sees no reason to revise its policy. But it's probably only a matter of time until PepsiCo embraces full traceability standards. They're already earning the ire of activists, who argue there's no reason PepsiCo should shouldn't investigate its palm oil supply back to its source, just like its competitors. (Some activists are already tarring PepsiCo as a company of orangutan haters.)
The new system isn't without its flaws. It could be gamed, for example, by mills that lie about where they’re buying raw palm oil from. But traceability might be the last chance for what remains of southeast Asia’s rainforests. And if it all works according to plan, consumers will be able to do their part, one oily donut and margarine tub at a time.
Adam Minter is an American writer based in Asia, where he covers politics, culture, business and junk. He is the author of "Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade," a bestselling and critically acclaimed account of his decade writing and reporting in the world's scrap yards. His work has been published in a range of publications, including the Atlantic, Bloomberg Businessweek, the Los Angeles Times and Time. His reporting on the world's junk trade has been published in Recycling International and Scrap. In 2003, he was the first recipient of the Stephen Barr Award for Feature Writing from the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his reporting on China's nascent scrap recycling industry. Adam was born in Minneapolis, and earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago.
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