Palm oil — derived from the seeds of the West African oil palm — is a high-smoke point, highly saturated fat of remarkable versatility. Not only can it be eaten, in things like baked goods, spreads, and candies, it can also be found in cosmetics, personal cleansers, and industrial lubricants; byproducts like the seed shells can even be used in concrete. The palm oil industry is so lucrative in habitats like Malaysia and Indonesia that it’s caused devastating deforestation in pursuit of monoculture; making your muffin or car or shampoo a direct contributor to the decline of the wild orangutan.
Palm oil’s evil extends beyond damage to the environment though. AP has produced an exposé on the industry’s reliance on child labour, contrasting two childhood experiences — that of a Girl Scout who sells cookies in Tennesee, and that of the estimated 1.5 million children who work in the Indonesian agricultural sector producing the palm oil for those cookies.
“Many kids are introduced to palm oil soon after they’re born – it’s a primary fat in infant formula. And as they grow, it’s present in many of their favorite foods: It’s in their Pop-Tarts and Cap’n Crunch cereal, Oreo cookies, KitKat candy bars, Magnum ice cream, doughnuts and even bubble gum.
‘Let them enjoy it,’ said Abang, a skinny 14-year-old who dropped out of the fifth grade to help his father on an Indonesian plantation and has never tasted ice cream. He has accepted his own fate, but still dreams of a better future for his little brother.
‘Let me work, just me, helping my father,’ Abang said. ‘I want my brother to go back to school. … I don’t want him in the same difficult situation like me.’”
As the world’s most popular vegetable oil, palm oil is present in an estimated 50% of packaged products. Manufacturers obscure its presence in ingredient lists by using up to 200 different names for it. Even ethically sourced palm oil can “greenwashed,” as the investigation of the above-mentioned Girl Scout uncovered.
So, it’s tricky to manage our dependence on palm oil. It’s also easy to not see the people (or endangered animals) whose pain goes into these products, being so far away from their origin. Awareness that it’s everywhere is maybe the first action towards reducing consumer dependence; finding alternatives is second. Third is reframing the market entirely — here’s hoping we’ll make it in time.