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The Problem with Palm Oil

Burning rainforests, menacing bulldozers, and sad-eyed orangutans flash across the screen.

Moments before, in Iceland Foods' anti palm oil ad, a cute cartoon orangutan had taken up residence in a little girl's room, getting into her dolls and generally making a mess. The baby orangutan makes his message clear: your shampoo and peanut butter have destroyed my home and killed my family. I have nowhere to go, "so I thought I'd stay with you."

As the picture fades to black, the UK-based supermarket company declares that it will ban palm oil products from its stores until ALL palm oil is sourced sustainably. Because the clip was originally a Greenpeace video, this emotional telling of the impacts of palm oil was considered too political, and never aired.

The destruction of some of our most rich and diverse ecosystems is cause for grief and alarm, but if Iceland Foods wants to stop these kinds of atrocities, their promise to BAN palm oil may be missing the mark. Palm oil has been intensely controversial, not just because its impacts today are devastating, but because it's a crop the world desperately needs.

The Problem

Because the crop thrives in humid, tropical conditions, the major producers are found in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Two countries in this last region, Indonesia and Malaysia, produce over 85% of the world's palm oil supply. (1) In all of Indonesia, thousands of square miles are deforested EVERY YEAR to make room for palm oil plantations. In the past few years, the rate has been decreasing. But even though 2019 saw the lowest rates of deforestation since '03, there were still over 1200 square miles cleared. (2) In some parts of Indonesia, rates of deforestation are still increasing. (3)

Deforestation is a huge problem because it causes a kind of ecological chain reaction. One kind of land that is often cleared for plantations is known as tropical peatlands. This swampy biome has a soft, mushy, water-saturated floor that's home to incredible amounts of microbes, fungi, plants and animals. When dead leaves and other decaying organic matter sinks into the peat, it's almost mummified, and because of this, these peatlands can store vast quantities of carbon.

When carbon-rich rainforests and peatlands are cleared, they are first bulldozed, then burned. This IMMEDIATELY takes all of that nicely stored carbon and turns it into carbon dioxide gas which fuels climate change. (4) So much land is burned to make room for palm oil that the smoke creates an ever-present haze over Indonesia and causes health hazards for miles and miles. (5)

Of course, humans are not the only species adversely affected by this sweeping change to the local ecosystem. In fact, 193 different endangered species are in the direct line of fire of the palm oil industry, including many highly intelligent species such as orangutans in Malaysia, chimpanzees in Nigeria, and elephants in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Over 10% of all orangutans are found in areas that are coveted by palm oil producers. (1) I believe, and, in a way, hope that humans of the future will look back on our society at this time and judge us severely for not doing more to protect these sentient lifeforms. Besides the fact that these species have the right to exist for their own sake, we must also consider the impacts of these losses, and biodiversity loss in general, on the human race. (6)

The fact is, we rely on many different natural animal and plant species for our survival; for example, wild bees to pollinate our crops, tropical plants from which we can derive new medicines, mussels and clams to clean our rivers and lakes. Every link in the chain we break has the potential to break many more, since these species are all interconnected and dependent upon each other. When we remove entire habitats even the weather patterns in an area can change. Species like mosquitoes or other disease-carrying animals spread into cities, bodies of water become polluted or even disappear and humans suffer.

Deforestation is a big deal. So let's stop using palm oil, right? Since so much rainforest and peatland is being cleared, can't we stop that by just switching to other oils? Nope. Simply banning palm oil is NOT GOING TO WORK. Palm oil is a unique crop because gallon for gallon it uses far less land than any other oil crop. (7) This means that if we switched to another crop, even more land would have to be cleared to meet global demand.

The Solution

Okay, so we're stuck with palm oil. Is that it? Do we have to just live with the least of many evils? Thankfully, NO! There ARE ways to produce palm oil while minimizing or even eliminating the clearing of carbon-rich and ecologically diverse areas. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has set up a certification program that addresses many issues in the palm oil industry.

A big way they mitigate both ecological and humanitarian damage is by creating meaningful, and mutually beneficial relationships with smallholders (basically mom and pop small farms). Farming palm requires a lot of time and energy and it can be difficult for smallholders to make ends meet. When a smallholder joins RSPO they get training and education on palm farming that allows them to increase their yields, improving their income. At the same time, RSPO creates opportunities for them to sell their products internationally. With better training and more income, these small farms are protected from being bought out by industrial plantations. In exchange for the rewards of the relationship, smallholders are obligated to uphold certain standards set by RSPO. These include things like prohibiting the use of fire to clear land (often leads to forest fires), minimizing erosion, preserving ground water sources, and, of course, absolutely no development on peatlands. (8) Instead growers can make use of land that is less ecologically valuable, preferably land that has already been cleared in the past and can be reused. (9)

Any company or producer at any point in the supply chain can become RSPO certified. At the end of the supply chain, large producers and retailers of everything from ramen noodles to lipstick can seek RSPO certification, indicating use of sustainable palm oil. Even if they don't use 100% sustainable palm oil (a lot of the market still isn't produced sustainably, so there's a certification for partially RSPO approved oil) these producers have the option to buy RSPO credits rather than seek certification. Each credit (previously known as a Green Palm certificate) funds the production of 1 tonne of sustainable palm oil. (10) This provides an economic incentive for plantations large and small to produce sustainably.

Johnson & Johnson is a well-known company that's made use of this credit option. Since they mainly use palm oil derivatives, and only a fraction of the market at that, they've opted to buy these credits to increase their support of the sustainable palm oil market. (11) This is a great way for wealthy companies in the U.S. to promote this industry, since altogether the U.S. only accounts for 2% of global demand for the crop. (12)

Your Part

We've seen that boycotting or banning palm oil in favor of other oils only makes the problem worse. Instead, wherever possible, we should opt for RSPO certified products.

If you see this logo on a product, BUY THAT. Unfortunately, not a lot of products carry this certification in the U.S., where I live. While very few products have achieved this high level of certification, many big producers in the U.S. have a relationship with RSPO and have made commitments and taken measures to improve the sustainability of their palm oil purchases. If you want to see which companies are doing the most for sustainable palm oil, check out the World Wildlife Fund's Palm Oil Scorecard.

You can sort by country, or any other criteria you want to check out. By supporting these companies rather than their competition, you'll be rewarding their efforts to produce sustainably.

You can also share about this issue on social media! If you've made changes to protect our rainforests, let your friends know! Lead by example! If you've decided to stop buying from an irresponsible company SHARE THAT! Hold them accountable! You could even share this post so your friends can learn more.

Last but not least, in a beautifully animated, digital equivalent of a petition, you can "add your voice" to the World Wildlife Fund's "Voice for the Planet". It's very easy, and just takes a few minutes. Help me make North America glow!

While your care, support and awareness can make a difference, I want to remind you that the burden of guilt shouldn't rest with any one of us. I'll leave you with a thought-provoking statement from Fay Richards, a representative of RSPO, taken from my email chain with her. (emphasis mine)

"The onus shouldn't be on consumers to check that all the right trademarks are on the products they want to buy. Sustainability should be the norm. Governments should build on the voluntary initiatives from the private sector by implementing binding rules to ensure companies follow high standards to act responsibly and address social and environmental issues... In an ideal world, organisations like the RSPO wouldn’t need to exist - companies producing commodities would operate responsibly, governments would have the best possible laws in place to protect workers, communities, and biodiversity, and companies would pay a premium and support small scale farmers to make a decent living."

Thanks for reading all the way to the end! My explanation of this issue may have been a bit simplistic for the sake of brevity, so if you're curious, please check out some of my source material listed at the bottom of the post. Either way, I hope you've learned a lot and have developed hope that we can make a difference for our planet.

Now on to the recipe!!!

So, I went to the store to get some instant ramen, and noticed that LITERALLY all of them have palm oil in them. If you make your own at home, you can avoid that. PLUS, this recipe is way healthier than the instant stuff. Try it out! Comment and let me know how you liked it! (Click the pic for printable recipe.)

If you like Japanese food, then you’ll LOVE this homemade miso ramen, and I think you’ll find that making authentic, from-scratch, Japanese cuisine isn’t as hard as it sounds. This pescatarian version of Ramen is jam-packed with umami flavors like seaweed, miso paste and smoked fish. Hope you enjoy! This recipe makes just 4 servings, so keep in mind if you’ve got a house-full.

The Broth

You’re going to need: · 3 Tbsp Miso Paste · 4 Cups of Dashi · 16 oz Noodles (Ramen, Fine Egg noodles, or Flour Stick noodles)

(While you’re making this, you can go ahead and boil a separate pot of water for your noodles) What’s Dashi you ask? It’s a broth used in a variety of Japanese dishes that’s made using kelp called kombu, and flakes of smoked fish known as bonito flakes. You can make it from scratch, which isn’t too hard, you can use a sort of premade broth tea bag (packets) or the simplest option is to use dashi powder. Making Dashi fresh will usually give you a STRONG fish flavor, so if you’re not totally into that funky, fishy aesthetic, just use a packet or powder. If you can’t find these ingredients at your local store, they’re all available for a good price on Amazon.

Buy Here:

Kombu ~ Bonito Flakes ~ Packets From Scratch: I won’t give you the full run down here. You can look it up online if you want to make it this way, but what you should know is that you can do it TWO ways. You can: · Make it on the stove, which will take 20-30 minutes · Use a cold brew method with your ingredients overnight in the fridge. Also, try looking up recipes that use your leftover kombu and/or bonito flakes. They still have plenty of flavor after being used to make dashi. Packet or Powder: Use the instructions on the package. You got this. I personally use the packets because they’re easy, relatively cheap, and the packet is made with the same natural ingredients you would use to make it from scratch. Okay, once you’ve got your broth hot on the stove, turn off the heat. Scoop about a cup of it into a heat-safe cup or bowl. Then you’re going to take the miso paste and whisk it into the broth you’ve just set aside. Once that’s nice and smooth with no clumps left, pour it back into the pot. Cook your noodles separately according to the package instructions, then drain and add to the broth. You can make the miso broth in advance and add noodles as needed if you prefer.

Protein (Can marinate overnight if desired)

You can use whatever works for your diet and budget as your protein. Traditional ramen has, of course, pork belly floating on top. We used salmon belly in our version because it’s easier to braise quickly than salmon filet, cheaper, less wasteful, and full of Omega-3’s. You could also roast some tofu in the oven, but keep in mind, the broth still contains fish ingredients so it won’t be vegan.

To make a simple teriyaki glaze, whisk together:

· 2 Tbsp Rice Vinegar

· 2 Tbsp Soy Sauce

· 1 Tbsp Brown Sugar

· 1 tsp Ginger Paste (So much easier than that whole scrape off the skin with a spoon nonsense)

· 1 tsp Garlic (minced or pressed)

If you want, you can make this ahead of time and marinate your protein in it, then save it to use as a glaze in the pan.

For pork belly or salmon belly, the cooking method is the same.

Simply heat a pan over medium-high heat, drizzle a little sesame oil or neutral cooking oil in the pan and place in your protein. You could throw some finely chopped green onions in too if you’re into that.

As the underside cooks, baste the top with your glaze, then flip the protein. Glaze the cooked side now. Once the underside seems like it’s getting brown and crispy, flip it one more time just to cook on that glaze. You only need to cook it for 30 seconds to a minute after that last flip.

For tofu you could use the above technique, but you can’t cook it for very long with the glaze so it probably wouldn’t get crispy. Instead try roasting it in the oven! Remember to get EXTRA FIRM tofu and get it very dry before you do anything. Preheat your oven to 400°. Cut the tofu into thin strips or thin squares (maybe ½ inch thick) then simply cover your tofu in the glaze. Spread out on parchment on a large baking sheet and cook for 15 minutes. Take it out and flip the tofu, then back in for another 15 minutes. Done!

You’re all set! Scoop some broth and noodles into a bowl, top with your protein and add whatever else you like on your ramen!

Optional Toppings:

· Soft-Boiled Egg: 6 or 7 minute egg

· Drizzle of Sesame Oil

· Roasted Seaweed

· Sesame Seeds

· Fresh Green Onions

· Steamed Edamame (without the shell)

· Diced Fresh, or pickled Jalapeno

· Sri Racha

1. Palm oil and Biodiversity

2. Global Forest Watch data (the URL was like 16 lines long... sorry)

3. Problem areas in Indonesia,of%20loss%20from%202002%2D2016.

4. Fires in Indonesia

5. Toxic Haze from burning

6. Why biodiversity is important

7. Comparison of oil crop yields

8. Environmental Requirements for smallholders

9. How to increase cropland without hurting rainforests

10. RSPO credits

11. Johnson & Johnson credits

12. USDA report on global oil consumption

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