Photo: oneVillage Initiative
If you don’t know what palm oil is, grab a snack from your cupboard and check the ingredients list on the back. There’s a 50 percent chance you’ll find “palm oil” there. If you don’t, check again for glyceryl, octyl palmitate, hydrogenated palm glycerides, palmate, palmolein, sodium lauryl sulfate, stearate, palm kernel or vegetable oil. Often it’s the exact same thing. Instant noodles, margarine, ice cream, frozen pizza, shampoo, crackers, they’ve all got palm oil in them. If you live in the West, that probably doesn’t mean much.
But if you live in Indonesia, it’s the reason why your country spends half the year on fire. Palm oil is a $50 billion industry that demands an endless cycle of deforestation and planting. Trees are burned in the island’s peatland and fires easily escape control. Carbon emissions from the wildfires reached 1.62 billion metric tons in October 2015, resulting in half a million cases of respiratory tract infections across Borneo, Sumatra, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. In addition to the human cost, palm oil cultivation is rapidly depleting one of the most fertile ecosystems in the world and quickly dispatching the last of the planet’s vanishing orangutans.
In short, palm oil is not great for the planet. Food corporations like PepsiCo and Wilmar International have pledged to stop sourcing their products from exploitative palm oil operations, but removing non-sustainable suppliers from the chain has proved difficult.
If you care about deforestation, extinction, human health and climate change, your household may already be boycotting palm oil. But John W. Roulac, founder and CEO of Nutiva, the world’s leading organic superfoods brand, wants you to know that there’s a difference between good palm oil and bad palm oil.
“On the agricultural side, palm is not a bad tree,” Roulac told Planet Experts. “People say, ‘Oh, don’t eat palm, palm’s horrible.’ But palm yields 10 to 12 times the oil of soy or canola and it has one-twelfth the carbon footprint. It’s much better for the environment if it’s done right. But mostly in South America and Indonesia, what’s done is they chop down forests with the habitats and the orangutans. We call it conflict palm. We’re opposed to conflict palm and we don’t support that.”
Nutiva’s customers are an eco-conscious group, so when they heard about the company’s use of “red palm oil,” plenty of them balked. Having spent most of his adult life fighting for things that grow from the earth – and against the things that cut them down – Roulac understands the sentiment. That’s why he’s hoping consumers will give red palm oil a chance.
Making a Pact With the Universe
“When I was a little kid, I spent a lot of time in nature and spent more time under trees and playing in tide pools than watching TV. That kind of shaped my reality and how I see the world,” explained Roulac. “In my twenties I became an environmental activist. The aha moment was when they dumped nuclear waste nine miles from my house by an unidentified truck driver. This is when I was living in Alta Dena. That really got me.”
This illegal dumping occurred in the early 1980s. Roulac heard about the event from a local DJ, whom kept the story alive for several days. “I hadn’t really focused at the time so much about the environment,” said Roulac. “That was the thing that just made me say, ‘Damn, something’s wrong with that…’”
Roulac, who didn’t graduate high school, began studying organics and permaculture and recycling. He started changing his diet and involved himself in forest activism. Between 1988 and 1990, he ran public campaigns to change the forestry laws in California; co-founded Forests Forever, a foundation to end clearcutting in the Mendocino and Humboldt redwood forests; and also helped organize the largest Earth Day festival in southern California.
“I wanted to do something that’s positive, that’s my vision. I made a pact with the universe that I would do whatever the universe wanted me to do and walk through any door.”
In the ‘90s, Roulac wrote a book on backyard composting and helped establish 700 home compost programs with cities and agencies all over California and the United States. He’s also a major proponent of hemp, creating his first hemp bar in 1999. From that initial product Nutiva has expanded into one of the fastest growing companies in America, with 120 employees and products available in 20,000 outlets across the world.
Today, Nutiva offers a variety of goods, from organic hazelnut spreads to plant protein, coconut oil, hemp shakes and eco-friendly recipes for healthier lifestyles. They also offer red palm oil. One of the most nutritious edible oils in the world, red palm oil is derived from the fruit of the palm tree, as opposed to the seed or kernel that produces kernel palm oil. Red palm contains high amounts of vitamins A and E and antioxidants. Red palm is approximately 45 percent saturated fat (with a high percentage of mono-unsaturated fat), compared to kernel oil, which contains 89 percent saturated fat. Nutiva’s red palm oil can be used for baking or frying, in sauces and stews, and topically in soaps and cosmetics.
But Isn’t Palm Oil Bad for the Planet?
An oil palm can’t be good or bad (most trees are strictly neutral in their morality), but oil palm plantations are damaging the environment. Nutiva’s red palm is not cultivated with slash and burn tactics that destroy ecosystems or endanger species. The company sources its palm oil fruit from small family farms in Ecuador that were planted many years ago. This palm oil is certified organic, non-GMO and Fair Trade, and harvested using no herbicides or other chemical toxins.
“We need to do something different,” said Roulac. “We’re partnering with a group called Natural Habitat, an Ecuadorian company that’s focused on doing palm right. I’ve been down there and people on our team have, and the average landholder has 10 to 20 acres of palm. These are small- to mid-sized farms. It’s been an agricultural land for half a century. […] We’re planting cover crops at the base of the soil to fix nitrogen, helping them with beneficial insects, providing compost at a reduced price, and paying them a premium for their palm fruits.”
Nutiva is also funding the local soccer team.
There are plenty of bad actors out there in the palm oil game, and that has left Nutiva tarred with the same brush. Activists are negative on palm, said Roulac, and with good reason. But there is a sustainable alternative, one that throws the destructive plantation system into sharp relief.
“We’re trying to do it right,” said Roulac, “so they need to support the right way and educate people about what’s going on the other way and ease market pressure to change the system.”