I am a recovering Oreo addict.
There, I said it.
Every day for lunch I used to go to the University of Arizona Medical Center hospital cafeteria and get a package of Oreos. I would eat them with lunch, savoring every bite of their sugary, creamy goodness. And then one day I turned the package over and saw the words "palm oil" staring back at me in bright white, bold letters.
Ugh, I thought, I really shouldn’t be eating these.
But I continued to eat them because they were just so dang good. That is until I took School of Anthropology faculty member Stacey Tecot’s "Primate Sexuality" course in the spring of 2012. One day during lecture in answering a student’s question about how she came to study lemurs, Tecot told us how there were plenty of other species she could have considered, like orangutans. However, because Tecot knew she wanted to study field primatology, not captive animals, that left species like wild orangutans out, especially given the likelihood they will be extinct in our life time due to rapid deforestation and habitat destruction.
Tecot went on to explain how orangutans’ rainforest habitat in Indonesia – the only habitat left for them in the world – is being destroyed to expand palm oil plantations. These plantations sell palm oil to large global corporations for their products: household cleaners, toiletries, snack food products and more. Recent estimates suggest that as many as 50 orangutans per week are dying as a direct result of this industry.
With only about 60,600 orangutans left in the world, they are quickly heading towards extinction, largely due to the conversion of their habitat to oil palm plantations. At this current pace, it is estimated that wild orangutans will be extinct in 3-12 years. My face turned red, and I sank down in my chair, embarrassed to be faced squarely with the reality that the Oreos I had eaten right before class and myself, sitting at the UA, all these miles away from the Borneon and Sumatran rainforests, were in fact a very real part of the orangutan’s demise.
That day, I went home and scoured the Internet for information about palm oil to better understand the problem. In hindsight, I admit I was really searching for a way to continue justifying eating my beloved Oreos. But what I found shocked and horrified me. Groups like the Rain Forest Action Network and The Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project described not only the environmental degradation of some of the world’s most biodiverse areas in order to develop palm oil plantations, but also human rights abuses of palm oil plantation workers and health issues that can arise from eating too much palm oil, which is high in saturated fats
As these animals’ habitats are being wiped out, they are forced to seek food and shelter elsewhere, becoming nuisances to local farmers and plantation owners. As a result they are targeted and killed. Perhaps most importantly, however, I also learned that Americans are playing an alarmingly large role in the extinction of these animals, because we are the world’s largest importer of palm oil. Found in almost every American home and in 50 percent of the products on American grocery store shelves, palm oil has become a way of life for the public.
While it is true that we are a major part of the problem, this also means that we can, in very real and tangible ways, become part of the solution.
When I approached my desire to study and or engage this issue on a deeper level, perhaps as a post-graduate or post-doctoral research project in Indonesia, Tecot noted that after she raises this issue in class, some students have gotten involved on a local level. For example, one student convinced a local Tucson restaurant to stop using palm oil in their food. Some have delved more deeply into the issue for research papers or in projects at other universities to which they've transferred. Others have described how they’ve changed their shopping habits because of what they’ve learned about the issue.
Realizing the enormity of this issue, our shared passion to do more about it than just lament its sad reality, and wanting to do something now rather than wait until after I graduate with my doctoral degree, Tecot and I decided to join forces to see what we could do in our own community here at the UA and in Tucson. Although it has only been a few short months, with the help of some deeply committed and passionate undergraduate and graduate students, we have founded the UA's Palm Oil Awareness Initiative and are working to become an officially recognized UA student organization.
In October we participated in the UA Campus Health’s Food Day. Our group is going strong and is currently planning our next steps which include exploring the possibilities of getting palm oil listed and/or included in the Smart Moves labeling initiative.
Kimberly Kelly is a doctoral student and senior research specialist in the UA School of Anthropology. Contacts: Kimberly Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or Stacey Tecot email@example.com.