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Demand Sustainable Palm Oil at the Claremont Colleges

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Palm Oil Production - The Story in Statistics:

  • Palm oil is often "hidden in plain sight" and found in many processed foods such as baked goods, bread, cereal, candy bars, and cookies.
  • It is estimated that 50% of all packaged foods, and 1 in every 10 supermarket products, contains some derivative of the ingredient.
  • About a third of all vegetable oil used worldwide is palm oil and palm oil exports alone accounted for 8% of Malaysia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2011.
  • Indonesia was named as the country with the fastest rate of deforestation in the Guinness Book of World Records 2008. 3,400 km2 of forest is converted to palm oil plantations each year in Indonesia. This is the equivalent of converting 300 football fields of land each hour!
  • Indonesia is also the world's 3rd largest emitter of carbon dioxide, behind only China and the United States, primarily due to the deforestation of rainforest land. 
  • In 1997, forest fires caused by draining peat swamps for palm oil plantations in Indonesia released as much CO2 as the United States released that whole year.
  • It is estimated that there are only about 6,700 Sumatran orangutans left in the wild and that over 50 orangutans are killed every week due to deforestation in Indonesia. It is predicted this critically endangered great ape could be the first of the great apes living today to go extinct in the wild - with local populations disappearing in Sumatra as early as the end of 2016.
  • Of the 59 million metric tonnes of palm oil produced last year, 42% was consumed in just three developing countries; India, Indonesia and China. Global production of palm oil has doubled over the last decade, and is set to double again by 2020. 
  • So far, Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) plantations only account for around 4% of the world's total palm oil.
  • The good news is that overall worldwide demand for  CSPO is increasing. Total sales of certified palm oil increased by almost half (48.8%) in the first six months of 2014 compared to the same period last year.
  • However, demand still lags supply. Only 47% of the CSPO produced from January to June garnered a premium price, which meant that certified producers were forced to sell the remainder at standard market rates.
  • Signing this petition sends a clear message to companies and suppliers alike and it tells them that you, as a consumer, demand transparency and value traceability in the sourcing of your food!


What is palm oil?

Palm oil is made from the fruit of oil palm trees that are originally from West Africa. Palm oil and its derivatives are found in almost half of all packaged food products as well as cosmetics and household cleaning supplies. It is the most inexpensive and highest yield vegetable oil, which makes it an attractive option for packaged products.  

Where is palm oil produced?

Malaysia and Indonesia produce about 85% of the world’s palm oil. Even though most palm oil is produced and sold by a few large conglomerates, more than seven million plantation workers, smallholders and their families depend on this trade for their livelihoods.

Why is palm oil production a problem?

The techniques used to produce palm oil are the problem. Large and powerful multinational companies log primary rainforest land to establish palm oil plantations so they can sell illegally logged timber in addition to making profits on palm oil.

Furthermore, peat swamps are drained to make room for plantations, and this releases huge amounts of stored carbon dioxide. This newly dried, drained land is prone to catching fire which creates serious health hazards for people and animals, such as the endangered Sumatran orangutan. There has also been some concern with regards to the displacement of indigenous peoples, who can be forced off their land to make way for large monoculture plantations.

Furthermore, the current certification system for sustainably produced palm oil administered by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is in many ways a greenwashing tactic meant to appease powerful players rather than address key issues with palm oil production. The certification prevents primary forests from being converted to plantations but has no stipulations against converting secondary or degraded forest lands. Moreover, there are no limits on the greenhouse gas emissions caused by land conversion. There is a lack of transparency and traceability to ensure that palm oil is truly sourced from certified sources, and throughout its history, the RSPO has been reluctant to expel members who violate certification standards.

What can the Claremont Colleges do about palm oil?

Our group initially planned to see if we could rid the dining halls of all palm oil, but soon changed our approach in response to our research findings. Because there is no other oil that produces superior yields per area and fertilizer input amount, it seems counterintuitive to replace palm oil with another arguably less sustainable and more resource intensive option. It is increasingly apparent that the global demand for vegetable oil is on the whole unsustainable – the solution may not lie in substituting which type of oil we use, but in the reimagining of the food system as a whole.

Although we recognize that pushing for the dining halls to only use foods that contain palm oil certified as sustainable is not the perfect solution, it is an initiative that we as students have control over and, as consumers, can push for. To this end, we have created a petition to demand that the major corporations that supply our dining hall food (mainly US Foods and Sysco) only supply products that contain palm oil sourced from deforestation-free plantations to limit the negative environmental and social effects of its production. The support for our petition demonstrates that we, students, staff and faculty of The Claremont Colleges, are increasingly well-informed and aware, and, as consumers, truly care about the global impact of the food on our plates.

Why sign this petition?

It is necessary to take a stand against the harmful and unsustainable production of palm oil. As college students we have to take responsibility for the food and products we use and consume on a daily basis. We are asking Sysco and US Foods, the two major food suppliers at the Claremont Colleges, to switch to supplying products that only contain palm oil that has been sustainably sourced. By signing this petition you are taking local action and contributing to a larger, global movement that demands a shift in the way palm oil is produced.

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