Environment, What is Organic

FDA moves to ban trans-fats – good for us, bad for the planet

Palm plantation replaces forestYou may have read this New York Times article, FDA Ruling Would All But Eliminate Trans Fat. It was a breakthrough last week when the FDA finally declared that trans-fats are not safe and began a 60-day comment period on a proposal to faze them completely out of U.S. foods. The Center for Science in the Public Interest and Nutrition Action has been trying to reduce or eliminate the use of partially hydrogenated oil, the principal source of artificial trans-fats, for 20 years. The organization had long pushed for trans-fat labeling on Nutrition Facts labels, so GMO labeling advocates should feel encouraged by this consumer choice victory. You can read more from Michael Jacobson on this major FDA Breakthrough. Because it has been known for years that trans-fats lead to heart disease, companies have raced to find cheap alternatives to them. Palm oil is one of those replacements and it has hidden ramifications for our planet.

The rise of palm oil

Palm oil is used widely as a replacement in foods that once contained trans-fats. By next year, palm oil is forecast to be the world’s most produced and internationally traded edible oil. It is used in an astonishing range of processed foods and cosmetics. One in ten supermarket products contains palm oil. Government targets for the use of agro fuels in Europe, China and North America are making palm oil, which can be used to produce biodiesel, an even hotter commodity.

The effect on tropical forest regions

Indonesia and Malaysia are the nations with the largest tropical forests in Asia. They are also the dominant producers of palm oil. Because of the high demand for this trans-fat free replacement, tropical forests are being cleared to make room for new palm oil plantations.  The trees and soil in these forests contain enormous amounts of carbon.  That’s why hundreds of tons of carbon dioxide are emitted into the atmosphere for every acre of forest that is cleared. This deforestation is a major threat to the biodiversity of tropical rain forests and to the people who live in these regions. You can learn more from the Union of Concerned Scientists.  Friends of the Earth (FOE) also have a great article on how palm oil expansion is bad for people and the planet.

The Land Grab

The burgeoning demand for palm oil is fueling a new corporate land grab all over the south equatorial regions of our globe. Companies such as Cargill, Wilmar and Sime Darby are gobbling up huge swaths of tropical rain forest in Africa, Indonesia and Malaysia. A story from the Philippines caught my attention and it highlighted the disruption of indigenous coconut production. The land was literally bulldozed and the families displaced for large palm oil plantations. Farmlandgrab.org was quoted as saying “Palm oil expansion is wreaking havoc to the lives of indigenous communities, by destroying their farmlands, hunting grounds and forest products, polluting their water sources and thus impoverishing them to an unprecedented level.” You can read the full story here. In fact there are similar stories from Borneo, Gabon, Papua New Guinea, Congo Basin and Peru. You can learn about countless accounts of this voracious corporate land grab at Farmlandgrab.org by typing “palm” into the search box. The more you read the more you will realize this is an egregious example of corporate exploitation of natural resources and indigenous people. For more on the politics of Palm Oils expansion, reference GRAIN and search for “palm”.

What you can do

Read labels and buy organic products without palm oil. Trans-fats can be replaced by traditional liquid vegetable oils, butter, animal fats and coconut oil. Bank of America and Citigroup are heavily invested in palm oil, particularly through holdings in Wilmar. Tell them to pull their money out of palm oil to help stem the rash of land grabs. Let’s get back on the track to truly tackle climate change and world hunger. We don’t need cheap unsustainable palm oil in our food or in our fuel.

10 thoughts on “FDA moves to ban trans-fats – good for us, bad for the planet”

  1. Again, the ground reality is quite different than what are at best half-truths regarding palm oil. Are you aware that the alternatives to palm oil are even more unsustainable? Where oil yield per hectare is concerned, oil palm is king – it takes only 0.26ha of land to produce one tonne of palm oil. In contrast, 2.2ha of land is needed to produce one tonne of soybean oil, 2ha of land for one tonne of sunflower oil, and 1.5ha for one tonne of rapeseed oil.

    Therefore, if world demand for edible oils is to be met through alternatives to palm oil, it would entail more intensive use of land resources. Tonne for tonne, palm oil beats other oils for land efficiency.

    Moreover, there are alternative producers like Thailand where small scale holders produce most of the palm oil, so you are doing a disservice to these farmers when you ask people to shun palm oil.

    1. Hi Rahul,
      Thank you for the good information on palm oil productivity. I read many reports of unsustainable palm production and am glad to hear there are alternatives. If you have websites or links I am sure others would like to know about them. We want to support sustainable sources that do not disrupt the indigenous peoples of the regions. Thanks again. Melody

      Melody L Meyer
      VP Policy and Industry Relations UNFI
      phone 401.528.8634 ext 62225
      Fax 831/462-5718
      SKYPE melody.meyer
      Visit my Blog at http://www.organicmattersblog.com

  2. Thank you Melody for responding to my comment. RSPO and GreenPalm are doing a good job of building up a certification system that helps in addressing the environmental issues associated with Palm Oil plantations. Here is a link to the current status:
    In my experience thus far, Palm Oil from South of Thailand (currently number 3 producer, but still way below what Malaysia and Indonesia produce) have the most number of small scale farmers/growers, and the least amount of deforestation. They also shipped the first RSPO certified palm oil this year. Like Organic Certification standards, it’s not perfect and not an organization that can legally enforce penalties etc. on their members, but having built a system is a progress towards having uniform international standards.
    So it’s best to acknowledge and support these sustainable initiatives. From a manufacturer perspective, there’s no GMO in palm oil and it’s a highly versatile and among the healthier alternatives like Coconut oil for frying or heat-based processes.

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