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If you've ever eaten food from a box, bag or package, chances are it contained palm oil. Snack food companies are increasingly using palm oil for its low trans fat content in their products. But palm oil plantations are known for more than palm oil production. They're contributing to deforestation, animal extinction and human rights violations.
Indonesia is the largest producer and exporter of palm oil globally, and Malaysia accounts for more than 90 percent of exports to the United States. Both countries are known for their monopoly on palm oil production, and for the high volume of environmental and human rights abuses in palm oil production.
These abuses have prompted the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) to fight the palm oil plantations that they believe are perpetuating these violations. On September 12, 2013, RAN announced a new campaign to put an end to irresponsible palm oil manufacture. It singled out 20 household snack food companies whose influence they believe can help incite the change needed. Called the "Snack Food 20," the selected companies include Campbell's Soup, Hillshire Brands, PepsiCo, Hershey, Kraft Food Group and more.
"We have collected these 20 companies because they are global brands and household names and they have the influence and power to engage their supply chains and tell their suppliers that they want responsible palm oil," RAN communications manager Laurel Sutherlin told Truthout.
For RAN, responsible palm oil "is grown in a way that does not contribute to deforestation, human rights abuses, product pollution or species extinction."
"Fundamentally, responsible palm oil is traceable," Sutherlin said. "For those things to be verified, you have to be able to go back and see where it came from. Responsible palm oil is traceable back to its source, and it has transparency in the supply chain."
With the palm oil industry continuing to grow in Indonesia and Malaysia, RAN believes it's imperative that changes be implemented now.
"Right now, there [are] plans to continue to clear an area the size of Missouri by the Indonesian government if this isn't put into check," Sutherlin said. "It's really a severe crisis. You've got major human rights violations, land being stolen from indigenous communities, and child labor. Also palm oil is probably the single leading threat to the survival of orangutans as a species. So we could see the orangutan go extinct in our lifetimes."
The expansion of the industry has been rapid. In less than two decades, palm oil production has nearly quadrupled and surpassed soybean as the world's most widely traded and used edible vegetable oil. In addition to clearing a Missouri-size chunk of land in Indonesia, palm oil production is spreading to other rainforest areas in Africa and Latin America.
As the industry continues to grow, the environmental and human rights abuses are stacking up. In 2012, the US Department of Labor listed palm oil as an industry notorious for child labor and forced labor. In Malaysia, an estimated 72,000 to 200,000 children work on palm oil plantations.
The US Department of Agriculture estimates that land used for palm oil production for 2013-14 will be 10.8 million hectares. In its report, RAN states that "palm oil expansion in Indonesia has risen from a growth rate of 1.2 million acres per year over the previous decade, to nearly 1.6 million acres per year between 2011-2013."
In addition to the threat to the forest, palm oil production threatens the survival of the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran and pygmy elephants, and the Sumatran and Borneo orangutans.
"Scientists estimate that converting a forest area into an industrial palm oil plantation results in the death or displacement of over 95 percent of the orangutans who originally lived in the area," RAN's report states.
It's these issues that RAN hopes to put an end to with their Snack Food 20 grass-roots campaign against irresponsible and unsustainable palm oil.
"The main thing we're asking is for people who are concerned to contact these 20 companies and let them know that they want them to remove palm oil from their product and they want them to only use responsible palm oil," Sutherlin said.
Prior to releasing the names of the companies, RAN engaged with all 20 of them to alert them of the problems that existed within their palm oil supply chains. Although Sutherlin said some companies ignored their attempts to contact them, others are showing an interest.
"We've had meetings with a handful of them, and we are seeing some progress. We are definitely seeing some companies that are expressing an understanding of the importance of the issue and are starting to take steps forward, so that's encouraging," Sutherlin told Truthout.
Dunkin' Brands, one of the Snack Food 20, currently uses a blend of oils in their donuts, including palm oil. Dunkin' PR and social media specialist Ali Aceto told Truthout that the company intends to move toward responsible palm oil for its future donut production.
"Because irresponsible palm oil production contributes to deforestation, loss of natural habitats and other environmental concerns, we support a moratorium on palm oil expansion in rain forests and peatlands. In addition, we are working with our suppliers to develop a plan to source 100 percent sustainable palm oil by 2020 and to ensure independent verification of compliance with our policy."
RAN hopes to continue a dialogue with companies like Dunkin' Brands to reform the snack food sector.
"We're willing to work with these companies," Sutherlin said. "We've outlined a whole roadmap to success for these companies, so we're willing to stick with them and develop policies and implement them, if they're willing to work with us."
With the palm oil industry continuing to grow uncontested, RAN hopes consumers will take a stand and demand that companies make a change.
"Companies really do care what their customers think," Sutherlin said. "They put millions of dollars into their brand identity and reputation, so what we really need is for people to raise their voices and make sure that they're heard by these companies."