The other oil import

Why palm oil is key to cutting the carbon emissions from our food system

Destruction of rainforest in Indonesia in 2009.
Photo courtesy of David Gilbert/RAN

Deforestation is at the top of the CIA’s list of environmental issues facing Indonesia, and much of it can be attributed to the creation of palm oil plantations, built to satisfy demands of the American market, which has increased the import of palm oil by 485 percent over the last decade.

Palm oil is used in ice cream, cookies, crackers, chocolate products, breakfast bars, cake mixes, doughnuts, potato chips, instant noodles, frozen desserts and meals, baby formula, margarine and dry and canned soups, according to the Rainforest Action Network, which is campaigning to see palm oil eliminated from products or their producers switch to using sustainably grown palm oil.

The Indonesian government has announced plans to convert some 44 million more acres — an area the size of Missouri — into palm oil plantations by 2020, according to the Rainforest Action Network. The United Nations’ Environment Program estimates that 98 percent of Indonesian rainforests could be destroyed by 2022. The loss of those rainforests would mean the loss of habitat for endangered species including the orangutan, Sumatran tiger and Sumatran rhinoceros and some of the most biologically diverse rainforests — home to 12 percent of mammals and 17 percent of bird species, according to the Rainforest Action Network.

Anna Lappé is the author of Diet for a Hot Planet, which picks up the conversation started by her mother, Diet for a Small Planet author Frances Moore Lappé, and co-founder (with her mother) of the Small Planet Institute, which works to spread Moore Lappé’s concept of “living democracy.” Lappé, who has also been on the board of the Rainforest Action Network since 2008, will be coming to Boulder for a conversation with Rainforest Action Network Acting Executive Director Lindsey Allen about the intersections between the environmental movement and the food movement.

Photo courtesy of David Gilbert/RAN

Boulder Weekly: The core of the mission driving the Small Planet Institute is this concept of living democracy. What changes would the spread of that concept make for the world we live in?

Anna Lappé: Our vision of living democracy is the idea, as my mom likes to put it, that democracy isn’t something we have, it’s something we do, and the idea is that democracy calls all of us to be engaged in our communities. So a vision of living democracy means a vision of having people directly engaged in their communities around issues that are affecting them.

How does this campaign to change some of the practices around palm oil fit into some of the bigger ideas you’ve been working on both in your books and at the Small Planet Institute?

Rainforest Action Network’s work around palm oil is actually how I first really connected with the organization. I’d been familiar with the work for years, but I was working on my most recent book, Diet for a Hot Planet, which is about the connection between food systems and climate change. Specifically, it’s looking at how the food industry is driving greenhouse gas emissions. And what I was surprised to discover is palm oil and the palm oil used in American snack food products and across many consumer products in the U.S. is actually directly related to endangering rainforests half a world away in Indonesia and Malaysia.

And there are some pretty significant effects to carbon emissions from that industry.

That’s right. Palm oil production, especially in Asia, is driving large-scale destruction of rainforest, and also carbon-rich peat landscapes, and as a result it’s releasing significant quantities of carbon pollution in the atmosphere, which is making palm oil a major global driver of human-induced climate change.

What inspired you to write Diet for a Hot Planet?

I was inspired to write Diet for a Hot Planet because for more than a decade I’d been working as an advocate for sustainable food and farming and thinking and learning about the social and environmental and economic costs of industrial agriculture, and I hadn’t really connected the dots between industrial agri culture and climate change until about 2006, when I read a report from the United Nations that started connecting those dots for me, started showing just how significant a food system is in global emissions.

Across the planet, the food system is responsible for about one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a really significant contributor to the crisis, and I felt passionately that although Americans were increasing their understanding of climate change and really starting to get engaged with trying to confront the drivers of global emissions, that food and food systems was really off of people’s radar. So I was hoping, through the book, to help people understand just what a significant impact our global food system has on climate and how food systems and farming can be a part of the solution.

What are the some of your suggestions for solutions?

What I was pleased to discover is that the kind of food and farm systems that I’d been advocating for for more than a decade when I started working on the book, that many friends and colleagues are working for across the country, is often called sustainable farming, but it can also be seen as climate-friendly farming.

The sustainable practices like using on-farm sources of fertility, like having and growing diverse crops on your land, like using ecological sources for pest and weed control — all those things we know are good for our bodies, are good for our water, are good for the farmers and farmworkers, but we’re also finding that they’re also good for climate.

Those practices significantly increase carbon sequestration of the soils, they significantly decrease the amount of greenhouse gas emissions related to a farming operation and they reduce the reliance of farms on petroleum-based chemicals and other fossil fuels. So often, I thought of organic farming as good for your body and good for your kids. It’s good for farmers and farmworkers, and now I really understand it, too, is really good for the climate and good for the planet.

An orangutan along the river near Camp Leakey, Tanjung Putting National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Borneo, Indonesia. | Photo courtesy of Ashley Shaeffer/RAN

What in your research has changed something you do on a day-to-day basis?

I’d been working on food and farming issues for many years, but the impact of palm oil on the environment and on indigenous communities and on endangered species was really a blind spot for me before I got educated by experts at Rainforest Action Network, and I think that’s probably true for most Americans. I think most people don’t realize that pretty much every single room in your house probably has a product that has palm oil in it. It’s found in most snack foods, it’s found in beauty products, it’s found in home cleaning products. Yet I think it’s this industrial ingredient that most people don’t know about, don’t think about, don’t understand the consequences of in terms of the environment and I think if they did, I think people would really start calling on the companies that make their favorite products to reformulate those products to either get the palm oil out, which can be done, or to really have a high level of standards for the palm oil that they do include in their products.

What’s next for your work?

I currently am running a new initiative in partnership with food and farming organizations across the country called Food Mythbusters. We’re taking on some of the biggest myths people have about food and helping them understand more about where their food comes from and more about what sustainable food looks like and tastes like, and doing that through a series of online movies, a website and grassroots events.

Our first movie took on the myth that we need industrial agriculture to feed the world and kind of busted that myth and showed just how powerful sustainable farming is in terms of addressing hunger globally.

Is there anything you want to add about the event or your work?

I was in Boulder last September and did an event with the [University of Colorado Boulder] and a number of other environmental groups and I was just so overwhelmed by the concentration that you have there in Boulder of really passionate people who care about the planet and, of course, it’s such a hot bed for fabulous sustainable food companies and sustainable product companies. Of all the cities in the country to be having this conversation about these intersections between food and the environment and the food movement and the environmental movement, Lindsey and I felt like Boulder was the place to be, so I really am excited about who’s going to be in the room with us.

Anna Lappé and Lindsey Allen will be appearing at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 21, at the Rembrandt Yard, 1301 Spruce St. Tickets are $125 for VIP, $35 for general admission. Additional information is available at

Food Mythbusters videos are available at for both private viewing and community screenings.