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We need to talk about palm oil.

And I know what you're thinking. "But there's already so many highly saturated semi-solid vegetable fats that I care deeply about! Why should I add palm oil to my long list?"


A worker inspecting palm fruit in Indonesia. Photo by Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP/Getty Images.

Well, for one thing...

Palm oil is in everything.

Palm oil is a highly stable, low cholesterol vegetable oil that is extracted from the pulp of oil palms native to Africa, though it's produced in Southeast Asia and South America. It's used as a cooking ingredient in many cultures and can be found in many commercial foods and products.

Including products that you probably love a lot: like some flavors of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Dove soap, many protein bars and soy milks, as well as Girl Scout cookies and Kit Kat bars.


Honestly, I thought the only ingredients in Kit Kat bars were "happiness" and "wafer." Photo via Evan-Amos/Wikimedia Commons.

So, yeah, palm oil is everywhere. Which also explains why the farming and processing of palm oil is expected to be an $88 billion industry by the year 2022.

Palm oil is cheap, easy to produce, and employs people all over the world. Sounds good, right?

Unfortunately, meeting the demand for palm oil can be highly destructive to the environment.

In order to grow enough oil-producing palm to meet demand, large swaths of tropical rainforest in Southeast Asia (where 85% of the world’s supply is produced) have been cleared for farmland.

A patch of peatland forest being burned for a palm oil plantation in Indonesia. Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images.

Rainforests are a key element in healthy biodiversity worldwide, and losing them has historically been a tragedy with very real consequences. The slashing and burning of these forests can release millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere and can cause millions of species of plants and animals to lose their home. This includes already endangered species like Sumatran orangutans, elephants, and tigers.

So ... should we just stop using palm oil? How do we fix this?

Unfortunately, it's not as simple as a product boycott.

"No other crop [besides oil palms] can yield even a third as much oil per acre planted," writes Joe Fassler in Smithsonian magazine.

Basically, palm oil is incredibly efficient. So efficient that boycotting it would only mean that another less efficient vegetable oil would have to carry the burden, meaning more farms would end up slashing and burning the rainforest to create space dedicated to a different, less efficient crop.

A man attempting to extinguish a peat forest fire. Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images.

Another option is that we could all learn to live without Kit Kats. But that's just not something I'm willing to accept.

If a boycott doesn't solve the problem and we refuse to live in a world without Kit Kats and Dove body soap, then what can we do?

Well, generally, the best thing a company can do is find a way to work with the planet that produces their materials, instead of against it.

A palm fruit worker in Indonesia. Photo by Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP/Getty Images.

Companies that use palm oil are going to have to find a sustainable way to keep farming it.

The good news is this isn't impossible and is already being done by many companies.

For example, The Body Shop, a popular health products company, has been sourcing 100% sustainable palm oil since 2011. They also recently announced a sweeping commitment to work with the planet by protecting forests, reducing energy use, and establishing healthy relationships with the communities that farm their ingredients.

Some of the biggest food companies are also already ahead of the curve when it comes to sustainable farming of palm oil. The Union of Concerned Scientists' 2015 Sustainable Palm Oil Scorecard shows strong commitments from brands such as Dunkin' Donuts, Nestle, Kellogg's, and General Mills to move toward more sustainable and "deforestation free" palm oil use.

This isn't just good business practice. Finding ways to sustainably produce palm oil may be essential for our future.

Photo by Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images.

We can't just suck materials out of the Earth forever in order to make more Cheetos.

If we want to keep the planet healthy and maintain our quality of life, yes, some things need to change. Otherwise, eventually, the scale, speed, and demand for processed food production will reach a breaking point. The planet's ability to supply us with these raw materials is not without limits.

When you're surrounded by the trappings and conveniences of a modern lifestyle, it's easy to forget that everything, even the most seemingly unnatural things, like your DVD of "Shrek 2," is made of raw materials that can be traced back to nature.

Things like palm oil can and should be produced sustainably. But the lesson to learn here is that all products should be produced in a way that works with the planet's natural capabilities.

Because when we keep our planet healthy, it lets us keep living here. And that's a pretty solid exchange of favors.

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