How your food affects the rainforest

Have you ever stopped to think about how the food you're eating may be affecting the rainforest? In fact, many foods such as bananas, soy, beef, palmitos (hearts of palm), and even breakfast cereals can have a negative affect on the tropics. I'm writing this in response to an email I received this morning from Rainforest Action Network (RAN), who is campaigning against General Mills cereals. I wanted people to not only be aware of the fact that General Mills is aiding in the destruction of the tropics, but also to simply be more food-conscious in their everyday lives.

Environmental organizations have warned that by eating foods that use palm oil as an ingredient, Western consumers are directly fueling the destruction of orangutan habitat and sensitive ecosystems. Today almost half of Malaysia's cultivated land consists of oil palm, and the country has become the world's largest producer and exporter of palm oil, though Indonesia is quickly gaining ground.

Palm oil is the most productive oil seed in the world, and is used as a source of biofuel, among other things. Traditionally environmentalists have been supportive of biofuels for their lower rates of pollution, but the problem lies in the nature of how the crop is produced. In recent years, vast areas of natural forest have been cleared across tropical Asia for oil palm plantations. This conversion has reduced biodiversity, increased vulnerability to catastrophic fires, and affected local communities dependent on services and products provided by forest ecosystems. The production of palm oil is harmful to the environment in many ways, generating vast amounts of waste that is thought to harm aquatic ecosystems, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, and leaving land that is useless and devoid of vegetation.

For these reasons, the scientific community is deeply concerned by a proposal by the Indonesian government to turn vast areas of Borneo's remote and biodiverse rainforests into oil-palm plantations. The proposed expanse of monoculture threatens to obliterate the region's legendary biodiversity (the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says some 361 species of animals have been discovered on the island in the past decade) while displacing native tribespeople. There is hope in the fact that palm oil can be produced in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way. Part of RAN's campaign is to get companies who insist on using palm oil to at least agree to use only this sustainably-harvested product.

More than 45 American companies, including Whole Foods and Seventh Generation, have committed to using only environmentally and socially responsible palm oil. General Mills has not yet made that commitment. Millions of acres of tropical rainforest on the breathtaking islands of Indonesia are being clearcut and burned to make way for palm oil plantations. These monoculture palm oil plantations force local communities off their land, release vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and destroy the precious habitat of endangered species, like orangutans and Sumatran tigers.

Not only is palm oil a problem. Soy has become one of the major sources of destruction of the Amazon. "After cattle ranching, soybeans are the main driver of Amazon destruction," said Roberto Smeraldi of Friends of the Earth Brazil. And let's not even talk about beef farms, the number one source of the destruction of rainforests since so long back. Palmito farms have taken over large areas of Amazonia, along with unsustainable crops of coffee and bananas. We can't all be perfect, but we can do our part to support companies that use sustainable methods to harvest these products. We can also donate to charities like RAN to help them campaign for environmentally friendly methods of production. To donate to RAN in their campaign against General Mills (and for their campaigns in general), you can visit

A great blog on everything Malaysia can be found at, and the website I used for much of the information and photos (with special permission) in today's blog is


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