Palm oil sucks
Palm oil sucks for so many reasons. It’s demonstrative of what is wrong with much of our general attitude. There are boundless sources on palm oil info on the web so I won’t get into any of them here but in short the problem is this: a large part of the production of palm oil is all about money and shows zero concern for anything else. Note that I say that palm oil is demonstrative of a general problematic attitude; it is not a specifically unique problem in itself.
I mentioned in a previous post that, apart from very few exceptions, there is no such thing as a truly vegan product. All products require a number of stages from production through to final delivery to consumer and at every stage there is a great probability of intentional harm against others. Here I’ll compare not apples with oranges, but apples with palm oil. There’s nothing more vegan than apples, right?
From Wikipedia I see 5 points under the topic of apple cultivation: breeding, pollination, maturation and harvest, storage, and pests and diseases. I don’t immediately know about the direct harms involved in breeding, harvesting or storage but it is absolutely clear that pollination and controlling pests is directly and intentionally harmful or exploitative of the pests and pollinators themselves. There is no way that most apple producers would be overly concerned about minimising their harm on (real or supposed) pests and I’m sure they’d go to all measures to maximise their yield of apples and minimise costs. There is similarly no way that most apple growers give a damn about the bees that they bring in to pollinate crops; I believe that many complete bee colonies are killed routinely in this business. So apples are not really vegan at all. What apples are is a food item that could, in a perfect vegan world, be made vegan by ensuring that all stages of their production is vegan. That is to say, apples are only potentially vegan. This is generally as good as it gets for vegans living in a non-vegan world.
In this regard palm oil is just like apples. It is similarly potentially vegan and, like apples, if it was produced and sold by vegans then it could be made properly vegan with zero intentional and minimal unintentional harm to anyone. That, of course, would likely come at an extra cost compared to how palm oil is being produced right now, but a vegan would bear that cost or would otherwise seek alternatives. Regarding direct and intentional harm, the only differences between apple and palm oil production are the particular animal species being harmed; for apples it might be codling moths and honey bees, for palm oil it might be termites and rhino beetles.
One area where palm oil production might be worse than apple production is in indirect and environmental harms. I’ve personally witnessed the smoky haze in KL that originates from the burning of Sumatran forests to make way for oil palms and it’s a sad sight. As far as I know apple production does not produce such visible and catastrophic environmental damage. But then again consider the fact that most apples are sold when they are around a year old, having sat in cold storage that entire time, possibly being transported numerous times between storage facilities. That storage and transport requires energy which generally comes from the burning of fossil fuels. The idyllic image of eating an apple directly picked off a tree is very illusory and just because we don’t see smoke from apple plantations does not imply they are necessarily “green.” And considering that apples may sometimes even be imported from distant countries exacerbates the problem. (If you counter that palm oil is similarly imported from distant countries then also consider that palm oil provides 8500 calories per kilogram while apples provide 520 calories per kilogram; that’s 16 times the energy density, or 16 times more shipping resources required for apples on a per-calories basis. Palm oil is also shelf-stable while apples require temperature control during shipping.)
But of course apples aren’t immediately associated with the displacing of orangutans or the loss of tropical rainforests and this is where most people will draw big distinctions.
The displacing of orangutans is indeed tragic – just (read equally) as tragic as the displacing of any species or of any individual animal. To have a concern for displaced orangutans over any other animal is pure speciesism: the antithesis of universal rights and the root of non-veganism. It makes perfect sense for non-vegans to commit to protecting “exotic” species like orangutans since it provides them a convenient diversion for avoiding the real, ever-present, and close-to-home issues that they are confronted with. But it makes no sense for anyone with a yearning for universal justice to have any more consideration for orangutans than for the individuals that are displaced and destroyed in producing any crops. My take is that when vegans show some sort of exceptional consideration for orangutans (or any other species for that matter) then non-vegans easily see this. It reduces the perceived vegan position from universal concern to one of preferring certain species and is easily (mis)interpreted as a “stricter” version of the (farcical) concern that non-vegans exhibit. It blurs the message of universal rights completely.
It’s certainly right for a vegan individual to make a concerted effort to boycott particular items or to refrain from (or engage in) particular activities that they have issues with or are avid about. It might be boycotting palm oil, it might be boycotting imported soy-based ice-cream, it might be refraining from flying, it might be participating in the rescue of particular species, it might even be deciding to not produce children. That’s all fine and we can do all those things for our own reasons, but if we do it because we consider one species more important than another then we are in dangerous territory.
For vegans: The post 10 Photos That Will Make You Never Want To Buy Palm Oil Ever Again is very disheartening and being able to relate to the face of the orangutan and connect with her in her unfortunate plight is wholly demoralising. But as much as it hurts to see her face we must acknowledge that her face is the same as that of another trillion individuals who are intentionally killed and the untold number that are unintentionally killed every year, even if we are unable to relate to them in the same way. To treat her with a special favour is not right.
For vegan advocacy: It is potentially damaging to the underlying notions of veganism and universal rights if they are conflated with any single issues. I fear that palm oil is in some ways like foie grois or fur – a real issue but a distraction from the big picture. It’s fine to discuss palm oil but it seems to be bandied about very disproportionately. The least we can all do is ensure that we do not cause direct and intentional harms and this baseline is necessary to present an unequivocal claim to non-vegan society. Moral standards are minimum standards, not variable expectations; people can exceed the minimum standards if they choose but the minimum requirement is what should be unequivocally sought. So it is with veganism. Grasping the concept of veganism is, and should remain, simple. Orangutans should not feature in vegan advocacy.
For non-vegans: Worrying about orangutans while continuing to eat and otherwise exploit other animals is like bailing water out of your own cabin on a sinking ship.