In my last post I mentioned palm oil. What’s that? It’s an industrial agriculture commodity. Uhh…what? A commodity is typically a raw material or product that is bought and sold. Industrial agriculture refers to large-scale farming.
The rationale behind massive monoculture like palm oil is that it’s efficient and can keep pace with the rapidly growing demands of a growing global population. But it comes with many costs.
Palm oil is particularly problematic because it’s a vegetable oil that’s in almost everything—from packaged foods to cosmetics to biofuels. It’s grown in tropical forests of Africa, Latin American, and Southeast Asia. Because it’s in such high demand, and because of where it’s grown, it’s responsible for devastating forest loss in those regions.
Oil palm plantations currently cover around 27 million hectares around the earth—that’s roughly the size of New Zealand! Beyond the environmental impacts, giant monoculture expansion leaves countries scrambling to address governance challenges. This strains already-insecure land tenure rights of local peoples and feeds corruption. The Environmental Investigation Agency estimates that about 50% of tropical deforestation is due to illegal clearing of land for agricultural communities.
#WhyItMatters: The expansion of monoculture plantations, like palm oil, have devastated habitats of critically endangered species around the world, some of the most iconic include the orangutan or Sumatran rhino. Plantations are also often built to the detriment of local indigenous peoples, who are forcibly ousted from their own land. These communities depend on the land and forests for small-scale subsistence agriculture, as well as hunting and the gathering of non-timber forest products. The promises of employment, infrastructure development, and electricity are often used to justify land leases to multinational corporations hoping to exploit the fertile land. These promises are rarely, if ever, kept.
Monoculture also degrades soil and makes regions more susceptible to erosion, which then requires costly soil replacement and devalues farmland. Over time, it also exhausts local soil fertility, which then requires costly chemical fertilizers and increases irrigation, both of which are costs passed down the supply chain to the consumer. Not to mention, the fertilizers used often pass into waterways, lakes, and oceans which are really damaging to ecosystems and human health — one of the most notable examples is red tide (a type of harmful algal bloom that produces toxins that kill fish and make shellfish dangerous to eat). Industrial farming also puts small and mid-sized farms out of business. That’s bad news for rural economies.
How can you help?
There’s a theme in my Why It Matters series: Make better consumer choices.
What each of us consume contributes to the global demand for goods. If billions of people stopped consuming things that are harming the planet, then rainforests would not be decimated to make way for agricultural expansion, oceans would not be overfished, waterways would not be poisoned with waste from power plants, natural carbon stores and critical habitats would not be disrupted.
If you’re not already using reusable goods, get on it. Plastic straws ought to be replaced with stainless steel versions; tampons and pads can be traded for a lunette cup; cloth diapers and glass storage containers can replace single-use or plastic versions. Even more, phase out of plastic packaged goods — from food wrap to toiletries to cleaning supplies — and choose package-free or bulk items. Shop at farmers’ markets and secondhand stores.
Commodities like beef, soy, palm oil, and timber are taxing on the planet, notwithstanding the losses incurred by local and indigenous communities that are ousted to make way for large-scale production. Lowering or eliminating consumption of these commodities in our lives are some of the biggest impacts we can have.