The decision will frustrate many vegans, but perhaps it's time to question what really defines 'success' in the animal protection world.
A kerfuffle arose late last year when the Bank of England launched new polymer bank notes that were discovered to contain trace amounts of chemicals (less than 0.05 percent) derived from animal products. This infuriated the one percent of the British population that identifies as vegan, as well as religious groups such as Hindus, Muslims, and Jains who found the idea of touching anything with beef or pork tallow to be offensive.
After receiving a petition with thousands of signatures, the Bank said it would investigate vegetable-based alternatives, which it did. The final decision, however, was just announced today and the vegans aren’t happy: The bank notes will continue to be made with animal tallow. Palm oil was the only feasible vegetable-based alternative, but the Bank says it will not work for a number of reasons.
First, a switch to palm oil would be extremely expensive, costing an additional 16.5 million pounds (US$21.4 million) over the next decade, which is not seen as achieving “value for money for taxpayers,” who would bear the burden of the expense.
Second, palm oil production is a notorious driver of deforestation in tropical regions around the world and the Bank said that its potential suppliers were not able to guarantee a sustainably-sourced product. As we’ve written before on TreeHugger, even when palm oil is certified as sustainable, there are many activists and environmental organizations that question the standards by which this certification is achieved.
This debate is an interesting opportunity to ask some tough questions about relative costs. The vegan stance is completely understandable, but if veganism’s goal is to minimize animal suffering most effectively, then one might argue that sticking with the “minute traces” of tallow-derived chemicals is better than switching to palm oil.
Tallow is made by boiling down an animal’s carcass and pressing to extract fat from bones, organs, and connective tissue. As awful as the process may sound, it’s worth remembering that these body parts would likely be waste products otherwise.
Palm oil production, by contrast, is responsible for widespread suffering among the tropical animals whose land is taken, burned, and replanted in a vast monocrop. As I wrote in an earlier article:
“Palm oil plantations decimate orangutan populations and threaten other endangered species such as tigers, rhinoceros, and elephants indigenous to Malaysia and Indonesia, the two countries that produce 85 percent of the world’s palm oil. Then there’s the effect on human populations in Asia, Africa, and Central America – land seized from indigenous inhabitants, forced labor, damage caused by fire and its resulting haze.”
In other words, the answer isn't black and white.