We Breathe What We Buy: How Palm Oil Is Driving Air Pollution in Asia

Promo image. We Breathe What We Buy campaign

The fires used to clear land for new palm oil plantations are out of control this year, and much of Asia is cloaked in a sickening haze. It's time to realize the cost of our global addiction to palm oil.

“We Breathe What We Buy” is the name of a new environmental campaign in Singapore. Its aim is to pressure companies to start selling “haze-free” products. Why such an odd request? Because the widespread burning of rainforest land in Indonesia – in order to plant more palm oil plantations – is creating so much smoke and trans-boundary haze pollution that it’s affecting neighboring nations, not to mention devastating its own country.

Malaysia has been forced to close schools and cancel sporting events, and many people are seeking medical treatment for respiratory problems. Singapore is warning citizens against being outside and many shops are handing out free masks.

Within Indonesia, it’s an eco-apocalypse; and yet, as George Monbiot points out, the world is looking away. The fires stretch along the 5,000-kilometre length of the country, cloaking it in heavy smoke that, in the past three weeks, has released more CO2 than the annual emissions of Germany. Children are being evacuated in warships; some have already choked to death. Members of parliament have had to wear masks during debates, while sitting in a fog-filled chamber with reduced visibility.

The Guardian reports: “Scientists say the pollution could surpass 1997 levels when the haze created an environmental disaster that cost an estimated US$9 billion in damage. ‘If the forecasts for a longer dry season hold, this suggests 2015 will rank among the most severe events on record,’ said Robert Field, a Columbia University scientist.”

All of this is done in the name of progress and development. The industries responsible for setting the fires are primarily palm oil, pulp and paper, and timber – but palm oil is particularly worrisome. Global demand is so high (and expected to double by 2020), and the Indonesian government eagerly hands out subsidies to growers, that further burning of the land to clear the rainforest for palm oil plantations is inevitable.

There is relatively little progress in getting consumers to move away from palm oil consumption. The versatile oil is still found in 50 percent of supermarket products, everything from household cleaners and skincare products to cookies and bouillon cubes. It’s everywhere, but most shoppers don’t seem to know or, more importantly, to care.

Part of the problem is palm oil’s invisibility. “Palm oil is not the defining ingredient – there is an immediate affinity between cocoa and chocolate in a way there just isn’t with palm oil,” said Jonathan Horrell, director of global sustainability for Mondelez Foods, at a recent roundtable held in the UK to discuss the palm oil problem. People are not inclined to look for a seal indicating sustainable agricultural practices.

The problem is even greater with cosmetics, according to Chris Sayner of chemical company Croda:

“Seventy percent of the world’s cosmetics contain palm derivatives [and] a thousand ingredients are palm-derived. It is very complicated to explain to consumers where palm even features.”

If there is such thing as a silver lining to the horrific fires burning in Indonesia right now, let’s hope it takes the form of global scrutiny at the environmental cost of our hunger for palm oil.

In the meantime, always read the label and avoid products that contain palm oil or palm derivatives, unless it is certified as sustainable by organizations such as the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) or Rainforest Alliance. Even then, I would urge consumers to question why they feel they must buy such imported tropical products in the first place.