Palm Oil in American Stores Sending the Sumatran Rhino Into Extinction

With less than 30 animals left in Borneo and an estimated 80 animals in Sumatra, the Sumatran rhino should be a constant reminder to all consumers of the devastating effect industrial palm oil plantations have on wildlife.
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Palm oil kills but with apologies to the orangutans, they'll have to get behind the line to extinction after the Sumatran rhino.

With less than 30 animals left in Borneo and an estimated 80 animals in Sumatra, the Sumatran rhino should be a constant reminder to all consumers of the devastating effect industrial palm oil plantations have on wildlife. Palm oil industry giant Sime Darby has pumped millions of dollars into saving the species but its a typical case of too little, too late.

So what's that to do with U.S. consumers sending endangered wildlife into extinction? Everything in your buttery soft body lotions and shampoos to your daily breakfast cereals and donuts. The use of palm oil and its fractions and derivatives (when it's broken down and mixed with other chemicals) is so widespread that no consumer can avoid it unless they've thoroughly researched the product names.

The awareness level among American consumers on the destructive impact of palm oil plantations is unfortunately very low compared to that of the Europeans, and multinational companies like Kellogg's are taking advantage of this. Case in point, Kellogg's uses a sustainable version of palm oil for its European market while serving U.S. customers the type that has question marks of wildlife extinction hanging all over it.

It doesn't help the American consumer at large when the industry throws money into what looks like thinly disguised advertisements like Dr. Oz's segment that promoted red palm oil as being healthy and a must-have ingredient for weight loss, or the recent gibberish that Bill Frezza hacked up. Anyone familiar with the outlandish claims that are constantly being made by palm oil companies should have recognized that both Dr. Oz and Bill seem to have read straight from the palm oil marketing manual.

"Palm oil cultivation does not threaten orangutan populations in Malaysia," is a familiar refrain, and they're right to a certain extent. The historical population of orangutans in East Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah have declined so much in the past few decades that you can't really kill any more orangutans in Malaysia unless you wipe out the last bits of their wild habitat. Sarawak, which is 95 percent deforested, can only claim to have some 1300 animals left in a small protected area. Sabah, which lays claim to forest cover of 58 percent, still claims approximately 11,000 animals, but a mere 20 years ago there were some 20,000 orangutans in Sabah.

So, if palm oil cultivation does not threaten orangutans in Malaysia, why did orangutan populations plummet just as their palm oil exports shot up?

Malaysian palm oil companies are worried, very worried. The global economy is still sucking wind, which has led to sharp drops in demand for palm oil. It has not been able to compete against cheaper palm oil from Indonesia and the future does not look good for Malaysia in its palm oil trade wars with its neighbour. Business was so bad that Malaysia had to waive all export taxes on palm oil for a few months last year to try and move inventory, and ended up putting together a biofuel consortium to use up excess inventory. It's never good when you have to eat up what you can't sell.

Add a general mood of discontent with the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) for having "failed to deliver" the market for higher priced sustainably produced palm oil and you have a marketing board in the Malaysian Palm Oil Board that's trying to paint a rosy picture of Malaysian palm oil through dubious channels.

I have personally met members from the Malaysian Palm Oil Council* and urged them to spend their advertising dollars on real conservation work on the ground rather than paid-for advertising. If Malaysian palm oil wants to distance itself from the "orangutan killing" version that's associated more with Indonesian operations, they'll have to do more than rely on a couple of spokespeople to paint misleading images of Malaysian palm oil.

Whether directly or indirectly, industrial palm oil plantations kills wildlife as their forest homes are lost to plantations. The best thing Malaysia palm companies can do for themselves is to walk the talk and show us, consumers, that Malaysian palm oil does not kill orangutans.

*There is a Malaysian Palm Oil Board( MPOB ), which is supposed to handle marketing, and there is a Malaysian Palm Oil Council ( MPOC ), which also handles the marketing of Malaysian palm oil

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