One of the biggest environmental and public health catastrophes of the year is not a hurricane or an earthquake. It’s a forest fire.
Perhaps you caught word of the tragedy of the Amazon fires in August and the subsequent outrage of Global North governments offering aide while your Facebook feed filled with articles and sad-face emojis. We love the Amazon! We likely all learned about the magic and mystic of this rainforest as wide-eyed elementary students while being extolled to “save the rainforest!” From what we didn’t know, but we knew it was worth saving! So we “like” and share and gasp and shake our heads. Some of us might stop buying beef for awhile.
But there’s another fire. It too is massive in area and even larger in terms of the resulting smoke cloud its releasing.
PALM OIL’S PROBLEM
The fires still currently burning in the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo to clear land for oil palm plantations and other agriculture is a poorly-regulated and near-annual occurrence. Habitual enough, in fact, for Malaysian journalist Wong Chun Wai to call the decades long practice a “rinse and repeat” story.
Palm oil is a major agricultural crop for the region. According to the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, 85% of global palm oil supply will come from Indonesia and Malaysia in 2019. This valuable cash crop is found in many packaged and processed food products – crackers, cookies, biscuits, candy, nut butters – as well as soaps, shampoos, and other cosmetics. It is semi-solid at room temperature, has no flavour or scent, and has natural preservative properties.
Agricultural data firm Gro Intelligence reported that from 1999 to 2015 the US alone increased imports of products made from palm oil by a multiple of four. This, they attributed to new labeling requirements about types of fats found in processed foods. “After health warnings of the effects of partially hydrogenated oils on cholesterol levels, food and snack processors looked for an economical substitute for oils that are free from trans fats, and they found it in palm oil,” they reported in 2016.
The ecological problem is compounded too, when the fires are burning on peatland, an essentially undecomposed, carbon-rich organic matter. These fires smolder like a doused campfire, often for weeks at a time, releasing incredible amounts of carbon straight into the atmosphere. To say that the fires are caused by palm oil is an oversimplification at best, and ignorance disseminated at worst. The fires are set during the dry season in Southeast Asia in order to clear land for oil palm plantations, banking on the rains of the predicted monsoons to thoroughly soak the earth and extinguish the remaining embers.
So, as the euphemistically-termed “haze” spreads across Malaysia and Singapore – causing health problems, canceling schools and sometimes flights – what can be done, thousands of miles away, by folks afraid of supporting such an endeavor by our consumer habits?
HOW THE GLOBAL NORTH CAN HELP
Boycotting all palm oil isn’t realistic. Places like Norway are learning this as they attempt to navigate the complexities of the product supply chain in their national policies. As stated previously, it is in a lot of products! Short of divesting from most mass-produced snacks and standing for hours in the cosmetics aisle reading labels searching for disguised ingredients like sodium kernelate or octyl palmitate, there are other small steps individual consumers can take to fight against large-scale industrialised farming.
One of the biggest actions any of us can take, from anywhere in the world is to adhere to the old eco-adage: “think globally, act locally.” Buy locally grown products and produce as much as possible. Keep money in your local communities and pay the grower directly when you can. Attend wet markets or farmer’s markets; shop at local farmer co-ops if they are in your area. Perhaps most importantly, buy in-season. Take up canning certain produce like past generations did for years; it’s fun, fresh, and something kids like getting involved in too!
Be informed. Look for labels that support sustainable practices and purchase accordingly. Emblems like Rainforest Alliance Certified (coffee, chocolate), Marine Stewardship Council’s Certified Sustainable Seafood, and the RSPO (palm oil) are good for the grocery scavenger hunt.
In fact, a multinational consumer study published in the journal Food Policy in 2014 found that while consumer attitudes toward the need for sustainable practices was high, awareness of labeling and subsequent purchasing decisions was low. Recognise that you may be paying more for a sustainably produced product, but also supporting good agricultural programs and practices at the same time. Thinking of the people and not the food itself when making your purchases helps to humanise the concept.
Make New Habits
Finally, recognizing your privilege. If you have the luxury – time, money, resources, a platform – to make good consumer choices to impact environmental and public health, use them! Talk about them. Share successes. Normalise an informed consumer behaviour. But be careful not to shame others not in your position. As the now newly famous eco-quote from Anne-Marie Bonneau, the “Zero-Waste Chef,” goes: “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”
THE NEW NORMAL?
The fires in Indonesia and Malaysia will eventually burn out, the skies will return to blue, and the people of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore will be able to take off their pollution-blocking face masks. Perhaps next year the burning will be less; perhaps not. But this is about more than just an environmental disaster you’ve heard little about over a product most know nothing of.
The overproduction of products for a global market will continue to wreak havoc on the environment and public health of citizens everywhere in new ways if we as consumers don’t arm ourselves with information and act accordingly. Dr. Adrienne Hollis, the lead climate-justice analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists states, “As climate change continues to alter disease patterns and disrupt health systems, its effect on human health will become harder to ignore.” Deforestation and burning of biomass affects climate change. It doesn’t take much to look into the effects of other trendy crops that have been industrialised in recent years such as quinoa in Bolivia or avocados in Mexico to see the extent of what our consumer habits support. (Spoiler: it’s more deforestation and poverty.)
Knowledge is power. It is also uncomfortable and requires changes in behaviours. But it needs to be shared. These are the issues that need to be discussed. We cannot collectively be ignorant any more.
Stetson Johnson is a guest writer for Earth Mamas International. As a biology and environmental science teacher with 15 years experience in exotic places such as Colombia, Brazil, Malaysia, and Wisconsin (USA), he loves exploring the natural world and learning how historical, social, and ethical aspects of culture play into environmental attitudes and perspectives.
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