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Don't Let Your Halloween Candy Kill Orangutans

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Sumatra and Borneo are the only places in the world where orangutans – the so-called "red apes" – live in the wild. Both species are endangered, the Sumatran one critically so. And your Halloween candy could be, at least in part, to blame.

Above: Sumatran orangutan via Lip Kee/Flickr

The Palm Oil Problem

Wild orangutans are losing their habitat as the rainforests in which they live are being cleared to produce timber and to expand palm oil plantations. The economics are actually fairly simple: when people buy products that contain palm oil, demand for those products go up. Plantations expand to compensate, which means that rainforest destruction accelerates.


The solution seems pretty simple, right? Stop buying products with palm oil in it. The problem is that even the savviest, most conservation-minded of shoppers can be fooled. That's because palm oil can be in a product even if the ingredients list doesn't say so. It can be listed simple as "vegetable oil," or as something like "sodium lauryl sulfate" or "sodium laureth sulfate."

In 2009, the Melbourne Zoo produced a short, sixty-second-long video as part of their "Don't Palm Us Off" campaign. It describes the links between consumer purchasing behavior, palm oil, and orangutan conservation. (The campaign was at least partially successful. In 2010, legislation was introduced in the Australian Parliament that was designed to make mandatory the listing of palm oil as an ingredient on food packaging.)

A Pathway to Sustainability

The thing is, it isn't that palm oil itself is bad. Conservation International points out it's actually got higher yields than other edible oils, meaning that more oil can be produced in the same plot of land than for other types of plants. While palm oil represents nearly forty percent of the world's edible oil, it's grown on just five percent of the land dedicated to oilseed crops. Palm oil production employs more than six million people around the world. Both of these are good things.


The problem is that it's being farmed in the wrong places. And while orangutans are the most charismatic, heart-wrenching way to promote the problem, deforestation goes much farther than just ape conservation. It is one of the leading drivers of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, for one thing. In addition, rainforests help to regulate weather patterns; they protect local communities from storms and floods and maintain healthy wetlands, which provide water for communities and agricultural efforts downstream. Remove the forest, and the whole ecosystem comes down like a house of cards. And it's not just the orangutans who suffer, it's us.

This decade-old satellite image from the NASA Earth Observatory shows deforestation in Borneo.

So how can the conservation concerns associated with palm oil farming be reconciled with the benefits of palm oil itself? The World Resources Institute argues that there is a sustainable way to farm palm oil. The basic strategy is to encourage farmers to use land that's already been degraded, rather than destroying intact rainforests. There are, according to the Institute, some "fourteen million hectares of land in the Kalimantan region of Borneo [that] may be suitable for sustainable palm oil production."


Meanwhile, given current consumer trends, farmers will need to add an additional three to seven million hectares of palm oil cultivation to keep up with global demands by 2020. What that means is that global palm oil needs can easily be met, at least in the near term – with room to spare – without destroying even one more hectare of orangutan habitat. (One hectare is roughly 2.5 acres; 100 hectares is one square kilometer.)

How can you help?

It isn't easy to simply eschew all products that contain palm oil, partly because it's estimated to be used in more than half of all processed supermarket items in the US, including cosmetics, and partly because a move towards sustainable palm oil wouldn't be served by a complete rejection of all products containing it. Instead, you could support those companies that have joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).


Lucky for you, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has created a handy app called the "Palm Oil Shopping Guide" that will help you discern which products are orangutan-friendly and which aren't, much like the Monterey Bay Aquarium's well-known SeafoodWatch app. It's available for iPhones and Androids.

Why not begin by picking out Halloween candies that aren't complicit in the destruction of orangutan habitats? The app scores manufacturers as "excellent" (green), "good" (yellow), or "needs improvement" (red).


Scores are calculated as follows:

1. Membership in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is 10% of the company's score.

2. Submitting the most recent Annual Communication of Progress (ACOP) report to the RSPO accounted for another 20%. Half of the possible points were awarded to companies that did not submit an ACOP in the most recent period, but did in the previous.

3. The company's use of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) is 40% of the total score and weighted based on the percentage of CSPO used compared to the total amount of palm oil used by the company. The score was then penalized based on the amount of book and claim (GreenPalm) that the company used versus physical CSPO, as reported on the company's ACOP. We believe that it is crucial for companies to move towards physical CSPO, hence the penalty.

4. A company's use of the RSPO logo on their products resulted in an additional 5% of the overall score.

5. A company's formal commitment to use only 100% deforestation-free palm oil was worth a possible 25% of the company's score. Points were awarded from 0 for no commitment and up to a full 25 for committing to use only deforestation-free palm oil by 2015.


I'm going to stay away from those delicious Justin's dark chocolate peanut butter cups , which they sell in the Italian deli near my place. Lucky for me, the Reese's cups are totally cool.

Jason G. Goldman is Editor of io9 Animals and host of The Wild Life podcast. Follow on Facebook or on Twitter: @jgold85.