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Isn’t palm oil natural and therefore better for our world?

The whole idea that natural is better came from the fact that burning fossil fuel emits greenhouse gases which many believe leads to global warming. Burning natural biodiesel is a much cleaner energy source. According to the EPA, burning 100% biodiesel reduces Sulfates (which cause acid rain) by 100%. Carbon Monoxide (which leads to greenhouse gases) is reduced by 50%. Particulate matter (which contributes to soot and inflames and causes lung disease) is reduced by 50%. So yes, if we are just talking about the act of burning fuel, biodiesel is better than petroleum. What we failed to take into account is how that biodiesel is produced. Oil palm plantations are typically grown on land that previously contained rainforest undisturbed by humans, also known as “primary rainforest”. The first step in land conversion is to cut down primary forest and burn what remains. One major issue with this practice is that rainforest is home to 50% of the world’s species. If their habitat is unprotected, endemic species populations become threatened with extinction. Another major issue is Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests are home to some of the oldest and deepest peatlands in the world (Page et al., 2011, Dommain et al., 2011, Wüst et al., 2011). That means these peatlands contains the most carbon. Peatland is highly flammable so when it is set on fire, it can smolder for months creating lots of soot and as much carbon dioxide as what is seen with fossil fuel combustion (Fargione et al. 2008). The labor intensive practice of clearing land, planting and harvesting palm fruit also requires an army of cheap labor. As much as 20% of Malaysia’s workforce consists of migrant workers. Many of those migrant workers are trafficked even if they travel willingly to Malaysia. Migrant workers in Malaysia are often subject to passport restriction, debt bondage and contract substitution (ie-the job in Malaysia is different from the employment contract that was signed in the worker’s home country). All these practices are indications of forced labor according to the US Department of State. The US Department of Labor also lists palm oil form Indonesia and Malaysia as also being produced by child labor. Does a natural oil that leads to some of the highest deforestation rates in the world, the creation of multiple critically endangered species, greenhouse gas emissions that rival those of fossil fuel combustion and uses forced and child labor sound like it is better for our world?

What can be done?

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