Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2020/ Palm Oil

Palm Oil

One of the final talks I attended in the Before Times was by BirutÄ— Mary Galdikas, a professor at Simon Fraser University who is sometimes described as the Jane Goodall of orangutans. Like Goodall, she was mentored by an anthropologist named Louis Leakey. Like Goodall she has spent her career engaged in behavioral studies and conservation efforts.

I had not known Galdikas was so famous, but that is why it is worth checking out unfamiliar talks. The talk was less about orangutans and more about the process of engaging in research, but as part of her conservation focus she asserted that one of the biggest threats to orangutan populations was palm oil. The forests of Borneo are being stripped for palm plantations. Galdikas made a clear request: stop using products made with palm oil.

That request stuck with me. I do not know how much I value orangutans, but I value the idea of valuing orangutans. I feel that orangutans (and chimps, and bonobos, and maybe elephants and whales) are creatures with sufficient intelligence and social organization to deserve status as human beings. We are in the process of driving all these species to extinction, and I do not see that as being so different than genocide. The ways that these intelligences differ from ours is as important as the ways they are similar, because they teach us that intelligence takes many different forms.

Orangutans are special because they are red, and also because (unlike most of the other great apes) they lead mostly-solitary lives. But in some ways they are a lot like other people. I remember reading someplace that they have been known to fashion dolls out of vegetation. But all three species of orangutan are critically endangered, and we are going to lose all of them, because we like palm oil more than we like orangutans.

This message hit me hard. I know I am an awful person, but I get defensive when I am reminded of this. I decided that I would no longer purchase products made with palm oil.

Oops. It turns out that pretty much all of the cheap junk food I purchased at Dollarama was made with palm oil -- all of the chocolate bars, all of the cake mixes, all of the cookies, the 25 cent packages of ramen noodles. One might think this is a great victory, since Dollarama food has been ruining my health for years, but it is actually bad news. When (if?) things get back to normal and I fall back into my stress eating habits, I will likely turn to Dollarama, but then instead of getting foods that are cheap and have moderate effects on my health, I will get foods that are more caloriffic, and I will gain yet more weight. This happened when I stopped eating hard candies to save my teeth, and it will happen again.

There is a Polish brand of chocolate wafer rolls that does not list palm oil in its ingredients, but I avoid purchasing those because I eat them all in one sitting. Similarly, I think there may be a few brands of chips that do not use palm oil (or actually do use it, but label it "vegetable oil" instead).

The stake through the heart was Uncle Ben's parboiled rice. One of my favorite vices was purchasing a package of macaroni and cheese (oops -- "Broccoli and Cheddar") flavored rice and eating it for dinner. The fake cheddar flavor was more intense and tasty than actual macaroni and cheese, and each package cost only my self-respect and a dollar. Alas. For no reason I can determine, Mars corporation uses palm oil in the flavour packet. Do I care about orangutans? Is macaroni and cheese flavoured rice more important than orangutan habitat? I guess not, so I guess macaroni and cheese flavoured rice is off the table. I have some vague intention to write Mars corporation and telling them why I no longer can purchase their product, but you know as well as I do how much good this will do.

Palm oil is not confined to Dollarama. During the lockdown I panic-bought some margarine, and -- surprise! -- it contained palm oil too. Palm oil is everywhere, and it seems part of the blame is trans fat. In the good old days we used to hydrogenate vegetable oil to make it shelf-stable. Now we hate trans fats and don't do that any more, so manufacturers have turned to vegetable fats like palm oil and coconut oil (which I guess is a form of palm oil too) instead. These fats are shelf-stable and semi-solid at room temperature, both of which are desirable for our manufactured foodstuffs. Furthermore they are cheap, because it does not cost much to chop down the forests of Borneo and plant palm tree plantations there.

There might be better alternatives to palm oil out there, but it is unlikely that there are alternatives that are both better and cheaper. Since I demand that my food be cheap (Dollarama, remember?) it is directly my fault that orangutans will go extinct. I did not intend to kill orangutans by purchasing cheap chocolate bars and cookies and Uncle Ben's rice, but that is what I did. Unfortunately, refraining from purchasing palm oil is not going to fix things now.

(There is another side to this. The people of Borneo chop down forests to grow palm oil because that is how they earn money. If we collectively become woke and stop purchasing palm oil, then what do they do for money? There has to be a better way, but because forests don't have intrinsic rights in our legal system, there isn't.)