Palm Oil Plantations, Orangutan Extinction, and Vegan Butter Supporting Neither

orangutan mother and infantAsk any vegan or vegetarian, and they’ll tell you: momentary pleasure makes a poor moral compass. Killing in the absence of need, for no better reason than transitory taste sensations, seems to many of us like an incredibly bad idea. People choose to follow a plant-based diet for numerous reasons, but one of the most commonly cited is compassion towards fellow creatures.

If we are going to commit to conscious eating, and embrace a diet that rejects killing for no better reason than random human whim, we need to pedal that bike all the way into the garage and reconsider our willingness to support the palm oil industry. Palm oil production causes tremendous death and destruction, and deserves no place at a compassionate table.

Death, Deforestation, and Denial

The problem is not new, but the escalating rate of species and habitat decimation is increasingly stomach-turning. Vegan foodies, conservationists and bloggers have voiced concern over the ethical implications of palm oil consumption for at least the last couple years. A 2010 post titled Earth Balance is not Vegan explores some of the reasons palm oil seems problematic, to some compassionate eaters.

If you still eat dairy, you may not realize how big a deal palm-oil-containing Earth Balance is, on the ‘hard-to-give-up’ list: it cooks like butter, and has been a longstanding magic favorite ingredient for vegan cupcakes, pie crusts, gravies, and all kinds of recipes where traditional cooks use butter.

I admit it: I resisted. I cut palm oil consumption way down, after initially reading about the wildlife-decimating slash-and-burn rainforest destruction by palm plantations. An estimated 1 in 10 processed foods contain palm oil, and most of the time it was easy to just read package labels and leave those items out of my cart. But every now and then, I wanted cupcakes. I wanted creamy nooch-sauce for nachos or potatoes. I wanted flaky pie crusts.

I bought the Earth Balance.

Last week, I read some things that shamed me. According to ABC News,

Hundreds of critically endangered orangutans in western Indonesia could be wiped out by the year’s end if palm oil companies keep setting land-clearing fires in their peat swamp forests, conservationists warned Thursday.

“They are just barely hanging on,” Ian Singleton, conservation director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, said of the Sumatran orangutans who live in the Tripa forest on the coast of Aceh province. “It is no longer several years away, but just a few months or even weeks before this iconic creature disappears.”

The fires set by palm plantations are burning orangutans and other rainforest species into oblivion. As a recent Reuters article reports,

Graham Usher, a member of the coalition [to save Tripa] and a landscape protection specialist, said satellite images showed forest fires had been burning in Tripa since last week, and if allowed to continue they could wipe out orangutans already forced onto the edge of remaining forests.

“If there is any prolonged dry spell, which is quite likely, there’s a very good chance that the whole piece of forest and everything in it, so that’s orangutans, sun bears, tigers, and all the other protected species in it, will disappear in a few weeks and will be gone permanently,” he told a news conference.

I’ve contributed grocery dollars to this kind of enormous and irrevocable loss, for no better reason than flaky pie crusts?!

Never again.

But Wait: There’s More!

Executive director of the Rainforest Action Network Michael Brune points out that palm oil causes problems for people, as well as orangutans and other rainforest animals. In a recent Huffington Post article Brune cites two new reports indicting the palm oil industry, for contributing to world hunger and climate change while relying on illegal deforestation.

Brune points out that there’s hope for progress, due to increasing media coverage and consumer awareness; but (as usual) agribusiness corporations seem eager to escalate the exploitation:

“… the mainstream media is starting to take note of this important front in the battle against climate change. It’s too bad though, that the giant agribusiness companies aren’t. Cargill announced last week its intention to acquire more land in Southeast Asia to expand production of palm oil.”

Decimation of endangered orangutans and other rainforest animals, contribution to world hunger, and exacerbation of climate change: these are not things I’m willing to support, for the sake of momentary pleasure. As far as I’m concerned, palm oil is off my grocery list for good.

The Veg Life, Sans Earth Balance: Brave New Recipes!

So what’s a dairy-free palm-oil-free cupcake-loving ecovore to do, without Earth Balance as a cooking staple? I’m glad you asked!

Amazing vegan chef Bryanna Clark Grogan has been working on developing a palm oil free vegan butter recipe, and last week pulled back the curtain to display it with a flourish. With support from Erik Markus at vegan.com and Mattie at veganbaking.net, Grogan has come up with a delicious-looking recipe using cocoa butter, soy milk, lemon juice, and other ingredients to replace Earth Balance on vegan toast.

Grogan provides supplemental production notes on her blog, so read those first; but the recipe is only available on vegan.com, and the author asks that it only be linked rather than reproduced. I’m off to order some fair trade cocoa butter post-haste; if you whip up a batch of this Buttah before I do, please report!

For further exploration, Mattie at veganbaking.net offers several vegan butter recipes that look intriguing and don’t seem to threaten anything with extinction (except possibly individual batches of cupcakes).

If you want palm oil out of Earth Balance spread, tell ’em so: all food issues in an industrialized society are consumer driven issues. Vegan cooks ARE the Earth Balance market, and they’ll find alternatives to palm oil if that’s all we’ll buy.

Just like industrial animal agriculture, palm oil production causes devastating animal suffering — to the point of probable species extinction. It’s catastrophic to rainforest ecosystems, and worsens the problems of world hunger and global climate change.

Learn more here. Share what you find out. Then shop accordingly.

There is no human need that only palm oil can meet: we support it — or don’t — on our whim. So if you value ethically sourced food, and embrace food choices based on compassion and conscious eating: don’t.

Image credit: Creative Commons photo by Miran Rijavec.

Author’s note: Michael Brune served as Rainforest Action Network executive director at the time of the cited article; currently Rebecca Tarbotton holds that position.

  1. Mitch

    I was shocked to see how many soapers do not know about this issue. I posed a question about hard soap without the use of palm. Palm oil is used in soap to make a hard bar. If you forgo all animal fats, you’re really left with Palm or a very long cure (wait) time. I know I’m only one person, but I will not use palm oil or animal products in my soaps. I just wish others knew about this.

    1. Tanya Sitton

      I hadn’t thought of the palm oil problem in connection with soap making… Thanks for bringing that up! One more thing to read labels over. :-/

      I think more people are beginning to realize there’s a problem, due to increased coverage by mainstream media (and due to the fact that it’s gotten so bad it’s harder to avoid the inevitability of extinction issues). I wish more people would care what they eat, in general; but among those who do, palm oil at least seems to be increasingly making it onto the radar… the problem now, unfortunately, may be of a ‘too little/ too late’ nature. :(

  2. supercarrot

    last i read, earth balance gets their organic palm from south america. (but it’s only in whipped form, so you’ll have to weigh it to be accurate in recipes. 1 cup=8 oz.)

    1. Tanya Sitton

      Good to know! I need to do more research: what’s the impact there? do they use the same slash/ burn plan, or no?

      Thanks for the info! Good to know it’s not all from the same problem source.

    1. Tanya Sitton

      Hmmm, that’s interesting; I know there are issues with what truly makes a product ‘fair trade,’ and I found the video thought provoking.

      But a lot of what he was saying related to a personal philosophical view (which, of course, underlies all ethical decisions, and is no small thing) rather than outright devastation of an entire habitat/ species… for example, saying that all seeds should go back to the earth, as an example of one of the ethical problems related to extracting/ exporting fat from those seeds: I understand and respect his point, but in truth that never happens — no plant sees 100% return/ germination rate of all its seeds, with or without corporate manipulation… that philosophical idea doesn’t make cocoa butter as ethically problematic as palm oil, in my opinion.

      I think we can acknowledge the problems with things like cocoa butter and coconut oil imports, and choose to either buy them or not based on their own merits. And, too, there’s always the choice of not eating any of it — there’s a lot of food in the world, and no rule says ‘you must eat butter or butter-like spreads!’

      But even with their own problems, I haven’t seen anything (so far! sigh) that makes them not look like better choices than palm oil, on the destructo-scale.

      Maybe the best-best choice is to do without any of them; but since not everyone is going to feel able to do that, I think a consideration of relative damage is good to undertake… and so far, I think palm oil seems to bring home the worst report card.

      (Probably fair to say, though, that no one in that group made the Dean’s list…)

  3. Dawn

    If you read the statement directly from the Earth Balance website you will see that they source only sustainable palm oil and only from countries that do not have native orangutans populations. http://www.earthbalancenatural.com/responsibility/palm-oil/

    I understand the intent behind this post and other vegans saying they will boycott vegan products and companies that use palm oil, but you should be doing your homework to understand exactly what policies each of these companies is following before boycotting. Palm oil is not necessarily doing the damage you are describing in your post in all cases.

    I don’t believe you directly said in your post that “palm oil is not vegan” for which I am appreciative. But I did write an extensive blog post on this very topic and why we should not be using that phrase because it is damaging to people’s understanding of the vegan movement. http://www.nashvilleveg.com/vegan-one-definition/

  4. Mattie

    Great article Tanya! It’s good to have options so we can source our foods as ethically and tastily as possible. I fear the day if/when these environmental issues start being associated with coconut oil, never mind the fact that it’s still flown halfway around the world. But maybe by then we’ll all be eating soylent green anyway;)

  5. Patty Shenker

    This is terrific news because the “sustainability” myth is just that- like cage-free eggs, free range chickens & Happy Cows. They’re market myths to make consumers feel alright about purchasing their products. Please watch YouTube’s The Sustainability Lie to see how this is- as they say, a “green wash pack of lies”. I don’t buy this myth so i don’t buy anything with palm oil so this new product is music to my ears, to the incredible endangered species, to the indigenous people & to all of us who need rainforests to survive on this planet & save her & ourselves.

    1. Tanya Sitton

      Thanks, Patty! I haven’t seen that video, but will seek it out. Like so many food issues, knowledge is power… hopefully, the more people become aware of the problem the less marketable palm oil will be!

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