Cows Are Destroying the Rainforest - But Not How You Think
Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil produced from the fruit of palm trees. It’s in almost half of the products found in our supermarkets - from foods to cosmetics and household cleaners. A total of 26 million rainforest acres have been cleared to date for palm oil production, and a staggering 136 million rainforest acres have been cleared for animal agriculture. Most people are completely unaware that a large percentage of palm kernel meal is being exported worldwide and used to fatten up animals. The U.S. is one of the main importers of New Zealand meat, which in turn is one of the largest importers of palm meal. U.S. consumers are unwittingly contributing to rainforest destruction by eating meat from cows who have been fed on palm meal.
Some may try to excuse palm meal as a by-product of palm oil production. But Sara Eppel of the U.K. Department of Food and Rural Affairs states, “It's not just a by-product, we import five times as much kernel [for animal feed] from Indonesia as palm oil."
On some farms, palm meal can constitute up to 80% of the diet of cows killed for meat, and 50% of the diet of cows used for milk production. We should be thinking of palm fruit as a co-product, not a by-product. Cutting animal products out of your own diet is a crucial way to stop deforestation.
Before we dive into this topic further, if you’re new to veg eating, we highly recommend bookmarking this page to read later once you feel comfortable replacing all animal products first, before you try to eliminate all palm oil directly. It’s important to take things one step at a time, especially in the beginning.
As Bite Sized Vegan Emily Barwick wisely states, “Should we be aware of and constantly striving to educate ourselves about where our food and other products come from and whom they impact? Absolutely. The danger comes when we are so overwhelmed that we throw up our hands and think it’s not worth it to even try.”
We couldn’t agree more.
Here is why we should all do our best to cut palm oil, and animal products out of our diet:
Impact on Animals:
Tropical rainforests are home to 70 percent of the Earth’s species of plants and animals. Once oil palm plantations have replaced the immense variety of hundreds of species of trees, vines, shrubs, and native plants that used to grow on the land, most animals can no longer live there. While Sumatran and Bornean orangutans are certainly the face of palm oil’s devastation, hundreds of threatened species including the Sumatran tiger, Asian elephant, proboscis monkey, gibbon, langur, clouded leopard and Sumatran rhinoceros are also being horrifically impacted - and many face the possibility of imminent extinction. The threat this destruction poses to our world’s biodiversity cannot be overstated.
Impact on People:
Indonesia and Malaysia are the two major producers of palm oil. Both countries have seen short-term economic improvements from palm oil production, but it comes at enormous cost to those who live there, including the seizure of indigenous lands, forced child labor, and an increase in human trafficking.
To maintain profits, palm oil-producing nations usually use merciless ‘slash-and-burn’ agriculture with uncontrolled plantation expansion practices and forests literally set on fire. Months of uncontrolled forest fires in 2015 catapulted Indonesia above China and the US as the world’s biggest global climate polluter. The toxic smoke and pesticide pollution drives out indigenous tribes and costs the health and homes of millions.
Impact on the Environment:
Palm oil farmers encroach on protected forests and burn acres of carbon-rich peatland. This results in deforestation, an influx of greenhouse gases, and a loss of biodiversity. Because peat swamps are acidic, chemicals are added to the ground in order for palm trees to grow.
What about sustainable palm oil?
Similar to the majority of labels on animal products (like “humane” or “natural”), in the U.S., any company can print “sustainable” on its label because the government does not have a regulatory agency to monitor that claim.
The easiest way to stop palm oil destruction is to cut animals out of your diet who may have been fed palm meal, and avoid palm oil which is found in many highly processed foods.
We can all make a positive impact by encouraging ourselves and others to take steps without judgment. Ethical eating is a journey for everyone, and we can achieve much more for animals and the planet through positive encouragement, and sharing information in a supportive way whenever possible. Start your journey today!