Beware the planet-killing candies of the Anthropocene


In 2019, our collective love of Oreos, KitKats, or any of myriad other products made with palm oil, has resulted in the burning of an area the size of Puerto Rico.

Global consumption of palm-oil-based food products has also released in that one-year period as much carbon dioxde pollution as the United Kingdom produced during the same time frame.

Activist critique

The problem is so bad that eight months into a groundbreaking collaboration with global companies to “green” the supply chain of Indonesian palm oil, Greenpeace International is dropping out.

The activist organization has also released a scathing report, “Burning Down the House,” that directly implicates an ongoing pattern of devastating rainforest wildfires on palm-oil growing groups, and on intermediary trading corporations such as Cargill and Wilmar.

The report shows that Unilever and other companies source from supply chain that are saturated with palm oil from unsustainable sources.

This is despite huge public commitments by these corporations to remove unsustainably produced oil out of their supply chains.

By tapping into the public databases, Greenpeace detected around 10,000 hotspots for wildfires in and around African oil palm plantations in 2019. 

They then researched the supply chains of the plantations in question, which led them directly to that KitKat bar.

By the numbers

The fires are set as a cheap and easy way to clear out brush and other vegetation in and around existing plantations.

Setting fires also opens up new terrain for the plantations, a literal scorched-earth tactic that transforms rich natural ecosystems into oil-palm monocultures.

Monoculture palm-oil plantation, Indonesia. (Credit: Achmad Rabin Taim/Wikimedia Commons)

From 2015 to 2018, growers burned 1,800 square kilometers of land to produce palm oil for Unilever.

During the same period, 1,400 square kilometers were burned to supply Wilmar, the global leader in palm oil trading.

In a bitter irony, 75 percent of Indonesia’s 2019 fire hotspots were in plantations associated with producer groups who belong to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

Smoke from fires in Indonesia this year spread across Southeast Asia, causing health problems along the way.

The fires also destroyed valuable peatland habitat that was supposedly off-limited to palm-oil plantations.

Pointing fingers

Greenpeace pulls no punches in its report, stating that consumer-product companies such as Unilever, and commodity-traders such as Wilmar, are failing to live up to their promises.

“Companies linked to Indonesia’s devastating forest and peatland fires still pervade the supply chains of all the major traders and consumer goods companies,” the report reads.

The report also finds that many palm-oil corporations have “failed to pay” court-ordered fines in Indonesia that could help restore burned regions.

At the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit, Unilever CEO Alan Jope acknowledged the need for reform, stating that “better forest protection and land management” are critical for meeting international goals to reduce carbon emissions.

“For this to happen,” he said, “we need to transform how we produce and consume — and businesses that don’t step up won’t have a future.”

The Greenpeace report took a different tone, asserting that companies such as Unilever, and other members of the palm oil sector, “has been unwilling to reform,” and that the global food and agriculture system is “broken.”

Sources: Mongabay, Global Fire Database, Greenpeace (PDF report)

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