Food products we consume every day are driving deforestation on the other side of the world.
Indonesian rainforests are among the most biodiverse, providing critical habitat for endangered species like the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran elephant, and orangutan. Many humans also rely on the rainforest for their livelihoods.
Yet millions of acres of Indonesian rainforest are being razed. Besides destroying habitat, deforestation produces the majority of Indonesia’s CO2 emissions and makes the country the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
The culprit is palm oil. Long found in cosmetics, palm oil is now used in a variety of consumer products. It’s popular with snack food companies since its lack of transfats makes it healthier than the ingredients it replaces. In fact, General Mills is a major buyer of palm oil, using it in over 100 of their products. Trusted brands like Betty Crocker, Chex, Green Giant, Pillsbury, and, yes, Cheerios (full list here) are contributing to rainforest destruction.
General Mills does not produce the palm oil; they rely on Cargill, a U.S. agribusiness giant that owns five palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and buys about 11 percent of Indonesia’s palm oil output.
To supply the surging market for palm oil (U.S. demand has tripled over five years), Indonesia has plans to double production. This is bad news, since the Indonesian government may be the only entity that can control deforestation in Indonesia. But palm oil, like many destructive industries, is big money. More palm plantations produce more jobs and higher tax revenue — hard benefits for any government to walk away from.
What can we do, way over here in the States? We can build a movement putting pressure on General Mills to switch to sustainable palm oil sources. Companies like Unilever and Seventh Generation have taken the initiative, and I don’t see any reason General Mills shouldn’t follow their lead. In a time when corporations like Wal-Mart are trying to put on a progressive image, a food company shouldn’t miss the chance for some positive PR.
But consumers must let General Mills know that we care about sustainability and that we know Cargill palm oil isn’t sustainable. Publishing a yearly report doesn’t make a corporation responsible; they have to back up their claims with action. For a company that “strives to stand among the most socially responsible consumer food companies in the world” that shouldn’t be a problem.