Making sweet choices
By Brianna Forte
How does your consumption of palm oil relate to sea turtles? Although there is no obvious connection between the two, every choice we as humans make directly impacts the environment.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, palm oil is a type of vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of oil palm trees. It’s an incredibly useful oil. If you were to walk into a grocery store right now, about half of the packaged products would contain palm oil. This resource is also an incredibly efficient crop that yields 35 percent of the world’s vegetable oil demand using 10 percent of the land.
On its own, the idea of palm oil as a resource is incredibly reasonable. The issue arises when you consider the amount of forests being destroyed in order to produce more palm oil. According to Green Palm Sustainability, the oil palm plant can only be grown 10 degrees in latitude north and south of the equator. As a result, the towering rainforests that offer huge amounts of biodiversity along the tropics are being knocked down in order to increase production.
This means that in addition to magnificent and endangered animals such as orangutans, pygmy elephants, and Sumatran rhinos losing their homes, humans also lose one of their main carbon dioxide consumers.
The loss of these rainforests in South America, Africa, and Asia to harvest more palm oil has a huge impact. According to the Nature Conservancy, these healthy forests are known as a “carbon sink” as they are able to absorb ample amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When these rainforests are eliminated, this contributes to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.
The increase in carbon dioxide is extremely detrimental to marine ecosystems but impacts sea turtles specifically through ocean acidification and climate change.
Ocean acidification occurs as a result of increased carbon dioxide levels in the ocean leading to an increase in carbonic acid. This in turn raises the pH from a neutral average of 8.1 to a projected 7.8 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by the end of this century. Although this change seems miniscule, it results in many ocean animals with shells struggling to form adequate protection. There are less carbonate ions available in the water for calcifying animals to use, and animals such as oysters, corals, urchins, and crabs cannot maintain their shells, skeletons, and other calcium carbonate structures. According to the World Wildlife Fund calcifying animals such as crabs, whelks, and conchs are a major food source for loggerhead, flatback, Kemp’s ridley, and olive ridley sea turtles. This means that sea turtles whose main prey are calcifying animals have less food available due to ocean acidification and the carbon emissions released into the earth’s atmosphere.
The second way the increase in carbon dioxide impacts sea turtles is through an increase in ocean temperatures as a result of climate change. Excess carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases form a thick barrier along the earth’s atmosphere that traps most of the sunlight that is trying to escape. When this light is trapped within the atmosphere, it results in increasing temperatures, which in turn warms the earth’s surface and leads to increasing ocean temperatures. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the sea surface temperature has increased during the 20th century, and from 1901 to 2015 the temperature rose at an average rate of 0.13℉ per decade. This increase in ocean temperatures contributes to the increase in a disease known as fibropapillomatosis, commonly called FP, among sea turtles. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, FP results in external tumors on sea turtles that can range in size, shape, and frequency and impact the animals’ ability to swim, see, and eat.
In order to protect our sea turtle friends to ensure they have enough food and don’t get dangerous diseases, we can work to examine how our choices impact carbon emissions. Although corporations are the main perpetrators for carbon emissions, as individuals we can try to be conscious consumers.
This upcoming Halloween make the sweet choice of picking candy that either doesn’t contain palm oil or uses sustainably harvested palm oil.
In order to find candy that doesn’t use palm oil, the first thing you can do is try reading the labels of your favorite Halloween treat. If the label lists ingredients such as palm oil, palm kernel oil, hydrogenated palm kernel oil, and palmate, try to avoid the candy. There are also palm oil derivatives in candy that can be avoided which include monoglycerides, diglycerides, magnesium stearate, calcium stearate, tocopherols, mixed tocopherols, and glycerin. A full list of other names and ingredients that include palm oil and should be avoided can be found here.
In addition to reading labels to see if candy contains palm oil or palm oil derivatives, there are three other things you can do to become a conscious consumer. The first is avoid big bags of mixed candy. When there’s a variety of candy, there’s a more likely chance the mix will contain a type of candy that isn’t palm oil free. The second is to avoid buying candy with coco butter equivalents or substitutes, as they are enzymatically produced fats made from palm oil. The final and easiest way to ensure you’re buying sweet and sea turtle safe candy is by adhering to this list of orangutan-friendly candy without palm oil.
Even after spooky season is over you can work toward helping out sea turtles and the overall carbon emissions by working to eliminate palm oil from your shopping cart, or only buying products that use sustainable palm oil. All it takes is a quick search through the Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard database composed by the World Wildlife Fund to find out how your favorite retailer, manufacturer, or food service ranks in terms of commitment to a responsible palm oil future. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has developed and implemented global standards for sustainable palm oil by developing a set of environmental and social criteria that companies must follow in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). You can identify organizations that use RSPO sustainable palm oil by the RSPO trademark on their label. To double check your grocery list when you go out, you can search for products using RSPO trademark here, or download the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo app on your phone.
Continue the spirit of Halloween throughout the year by choosing the sweet option of decreasing your consumption of unsustainable palm oil.
Palm Oil Links:
Ocean Acidification and Climate Change Links:
Palm Oil and Candy Links: