Sunday, March 10, 2013

Can a Plant Ever Be Called Non-Vegan?

Veganism is a lifelong journey. There is always room to learn and grow, new food discoveries to be made, and newfound knowledge to ponder in order to reassess one’s values and reaffirm one’s commitments and convictions.

Armed with recently acquired information about the horrors of palm oil production; I have now reexamined my consumption of this omnipresent ingredient. My new awareness has left me asking the question: Can a plant used by humans that results in environmental degradation, animal cruelty and deaths, and social injustice be considered vegan and cruelty free?

Palm oil is derived from the cooked fruit and kernels of the palm plant. Since it comes from a plant it is inherently vegan—not derived from an animal. Nevertheless, the increased demand for palm oil—due to its lack of trans fat—has caused production to skyrocket leading to massive environmental destruction, the slaughter of hundreds of species, and the confiscation of land from indigenous peoples—surely un-vegan outcomes.

According to the Rainforest Action Network, palm oil is now found in roughly fifty percent of all packaged goods and is used to make a wide variety of consumer products from cookies to breakfast cereals, to cosmetics, soaps and detergents. Just try to find a ready-made vegan cookie or pie crust that doesn’t contain palm oil. Take it from me; it’s extremely difficult.

The increase in palm plantations, specifically in Indonesia and Malaysia which together control 90 percent of the market, has left the orangutan fighting for survival. According to Thomas King, founder of, some dozen orangutans are killed every day due to palm oil production. In fact, palm oil workers are actually paid a bounty for every orangutan they kill. Orangutans are often caught wandering through plantations desperately hungry for food. The workers are instructed to do whatever they have to do to eliminate them—run over them with logging machinery, beat them to death, bury them alive, or set them on fire. Those who are not killed, often abandoned babies, are sold into the illegal pet trade or are shipped overseas to be used in abusement [sic] parks, zoos, circuses, or are made to perform in commercials and movies.

It is estimated that more than 50,000 orangutans have already died for the production of palm oil. Scientists believe that if nothing is done, these great apes will vanish from the wild as early as 2015. And they are not alone. In addition to orangutans, other species such as the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros and Asian elephant are also being exterminated directly and indirectly through palm oil production, making the profitable plant terribly cruel to animals.

There are also grave environmental consequences from manufacturing palm oil. The increase in palm plantations is causing widespread environmental destruction as old growth forests are destroyed to make room for palm plants, essentially releasing tons of trapped carbon into the atmosphere. Nearby waterways are polluted from toxic pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides, while the air is choked with smoke due to slash-and-burn techniques used to clear forests. According to a United Nation Environment Program report, Indonesian rainforests will be all but destroyed by the year 2022 due to illegal logging and palm oil production.

Lastly, indigenous peoples are often ejected from their land at gunpoint so that palm oil thugs can make a profit by selling what they harvest to influential agricultural companies like Monsanto and Cargill. According to a recent VegNews magazine article by Mark Hawthorne entitled The Problem with Palm Oil (Feb. 2013), Indonesian state authorities murdered 22 people involved in land struggles with palm oil companies. In one case, a Filipino farmer was powerless to stop guards who sprayed his banana and coconut trees with chemicals so that they would die in order to bulldoze his land to make way for more palm plants.

Like the blood diamond industry, there is no fool proof way to ensure that palm oil is produced in an ethical manner, or in a way that is environmentally sustainable, fairly traded, and doesn’t negatively impact the lives of both human and non-human animals. The existing methods of production are not tenable and are highly destructive to people, wildlife, and the entire planet.

If to be vegan means to avoid all forms of animal cruelty and exploitation while promoting products and ideas that benefit humans, animals, and the environment, then the consumption of palm oil as it is made today does not adhere to the spirit of veganism.

For all intents and purposes, palm oil is a vegan product, however, as with most things, humans have turned a thing of nature (the palm plant) into a cruel and destructive commodity (palm oil) that ought to be avoided any way possible. Currently, there is simply too much suffering associated with the production of palm oil to excuse its usefulness any further.

What You Can Do:
  • Spread the word.
  • Boycott products with palm oil.
  • Contact companies that continue to use palm oil and ask them to stop.
  • Support conservation efforts in Borneo, Indonesia and Malaysia.
For more information, visit the Rainforest Action Network.

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