What To Do About Planet Palm

Production of palm for oil is a problem, to say the least. What can we do? The publisher describes this forthcoming book as being in the tradition of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Bill McKibben interviews the author (scroll to the second section in his weekly newsletter, after the note on energy use in the cannabis industry):

About half of all products on grocery shelves contain palm oil, and production has doubled in the past decade. The James Beard Award-winning food journalist Jocelyn Zuckerman has travelled from Indonesia and Malaysia to Brazil and India looking at the vast plantations where the oil palms are grown. Her forthcoming book, “Planet Palm,” is a compelling look at just how much trouble it’s possible to cause with a single plant. (Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

Palm oil seems to cause more havoc per ounce than almost any commodity, and yet we’ve barely heard of it. Why is it so bad?

The main problem is its effect on the environment. The oil palm plant grows best at ten degrees to the north and south of the equator. Unfortunately, that swathe also corresponds with the planet’s tropical rain forests. Not only are these ecosystems important for sequestering carbon but they support more than half the world’s plant and animal species. We now know that global biodiversity is declining faster than at any time in human history, with far-reaching consequences in terms of pollination and pest control, among other things. The demise of a single species can lead to the collapse of an entire ecosystem, affecting local communities and ultimately destabilizing economies and governments. The region targeted for oil-palm development also overlaps with much of the earth’s peatlands—soils formed over thousands of years through the accumulation of organic matter—and draining and burning this terrain to make way for plantations sends massive quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Finally, we’re flirting with pandemic disaster. Some seventy-five per cent of today’s emerging infectious diseases originate in animals, and sixty per cent of those can spread directly from them. Over the past few decades the number of such animal-to-human, or “zoonotic,” transmissions has skyrocketed. A third of these new diseases can be linked directly to deforestation and agricultural intensification, most of it involving tropical rain forests. Mowing down these natural treasures doesn’t just push iconic animals like the orangutan to the brink of extinction; it also sends virus-carrying wildlife like bats in search of new habitat, forcing them into closer contact with humans.,,

Read the whole interview in the newsletter here.

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