Fate in the Palm of Our Hands

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their job and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

samantha_week3_picAs my mother prepared tostadas, I couldn’t help but look through the list of ingredients of the products we were using after the day we experienced during Zoo InternQuest. To my surprise, one of the ingredients listed on the tostadas was palm oil.

Kimberly Livingstone, a Lead Keeper for the Primate Department at the San Diego Zoo, introduced us to some of the primates she cares for. One of which is my personal favorite… orangutans. As we walked on the brown memory-foam like path (made from recycled tires) to the orangutan exhibit, interns were greeted by orangutans that walked right up to us from the other side of the glass. Ms. Livingstone described their personalities, lifestyles, and how they are cared for under the managed care of the Zoo. Sadly, she also talked about how orangutans are critically endangered, one of the reasons being because of the farming of palm oil.

Orangutan habitat, along with the habitat of many other endangered species such as tigers, sun bears, rhinos, and elephants, is being destroyed because of palm oil. But what exactly is palm oil? It is oil that is used in common household products, ranging from toothpaste, food, and even makeup. In order to harvest the palms, farmers demolish the habitats of these animals, clear cutting the natural rainforest and replacing it with a palm oil plantation. These plantations are a type of monoculture, where only a single type of crop is growing, very different from the diversity of plants seen in natural habitats.

Palm oil is everywhere, but there are ways to help, including being a smart consumer. In fact, as Ms. Livingstone discussed, there was a famous case where a well-known group refused to sell cookies because the product contained palm oil. The group denied the organization’s request to see the cookies because they did not want to support the palm oil industry and contribute to the decline of our amazing primates. Awareness is key, which is exactly why Ms. Livingstone’s job is pivotal to the conservation of our primates: she makes us conscious of what threatens apes and what we can do to help.

So, I asked Ms. Livingstone for her expert opinion on what else we can do to help stop the palm oil issue. She told us that the most effective way is to know exactly where your food comes from. How do you know where your food comes from? Check the labels and buy produce from your local farmer’s market. You may not know where the food came from at that grocery store, but if you buy from a farmer’s market, you know that the product you are purchasing was grown close to home. You can also grow a garden in your own backyard. If you grow your food yourself, you know the exact life story of that food.

For Americans, food is pretty much a theoretical concept. For example, to us, that ham in the grocery store has always been a ham; it was never a living being beforehand. It didn’t exist prior to being put on the shelf of the grocery store. We live in a world of economics, so the only way to change the business is to change the demands of the consumers. If enough people refuse to buy a product, businesses will have no other choice but to bend to the customers’ demands. If you think a product might have palm oil in it, check the label. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, is good source to find out which companies are pledging to transition to sustainable palm oil. In the near future, look for certified sustainable palm oil in your products, from food to makeup to shampoo. Thankfully, since we live in a technological era, spreading the word about palm oil has never been easier. Tell your friends on social media sites about this big issue, and perhaps you can help change business’ views on unsustainable palm oil.

Samantha, Conservation Team
Week Three, Winter Session 2014