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More War Means More Bad Environmental Decisions

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Cheryl noted earlier that we have three years to do something about climate change. Let’s just say that I ain’t holding my increasingly overheated breath. One of the problems is that fighting climate change takes a lot of systems working really well together. There are lots of facets to the fight against climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. The most obvious is about fossil fuels. The Russian war certainly can affect that, though by cutting off gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland maybe it will force those nations to move more directly to green energy. But that’s not all. This article on cooking oil is really critically important because the Russians and the Ukrainians are major exporters of sunflower oil, which is quite sustainable and is grown in fields long ago converted to agriculture. But with that cut off, it only reinforces people using palm oil as a substitute, which is a complete disaster because the last of the world’s jungles are being logged off and cleared for this extraordinary unsustainable product.

In the global protests against Vladimir Putin’s “special operation,” the sunflower has become a potent emblem of solidarity with Ukraine, for which it is not only a national symbol but a key export. Native to the Americas, it was established in Eastern Europe by the turn of the nineteenth century, and ever since Ukraine and Russia have cultivated it and prized its oil. Together the two countries now produce at least 70 percent of the globe’s sunflower oil.

But the invasion has disrupted this export, sending the global price of all cooking oils skyrocketing. This has forced fast and processed food companies to scramble for alternatives. The resulting price hikes on these commodities threaten to put an essential foodstuff, cooking oil, out of reach for many of the world’s poor. And it has caused a dangerous resurgence of palm oil as a substitute, to the great dismay of environmental and human rights campaigners. This demand has so greatly increased the market value of palm oil that Indonesia, which exports 56 percent of the world’s supply, announced this week that it would halt all exports until it could secure its own country’s food supply. This move will certainly only further destabilize markets.

Over the past decades, environmental and human rights organizations have had some measure of success in drawing attention to the dire impacts of palm oil production, notably in Indonesia and Malaysia, which together export 85 percent of the world’s supply, as well as in Latin America, West Africa, and other tropical regions where oil palms are grown. Taking inspiration from earlier consumer-oriented campaigns to associate diamond mining with war and violence, several large global NGOs have used the term “conflict palm oil.” The term seeks to draw attention to the link between the expansion of palm oil plantations deep into tropical forests and the systematic abuse of workers and the environment. The expansion of oil palm farming is often accomplished through violent land-grabs that robs Indigenous people and peasants of their traditional territories. Palm barons are known to employ gangs and death squads to intimidate or murder journalists, trade unionists, and environmentalists.

In the last decade, a number of high-profile brands, including Iceland-brand frozen foods and Barilla (the world’s largest pasta maker), have bowed to pressure and removed palm oil from their products, turning to sunflower, soy, coconut, and other oils as substitutes. Others have pledged to purchase only from suppliers who abide by voluntary (and dubious) “sustainable” benchmarks. But with prices of alternative oils rising as markets rush to compensate for the disruption to Ukraine’s and Russia’s sunflower exports, those modest advances are in jeopardy. Palm oil remains a reliably cheap, readily available alternative. Environmental campaigners fear another wave of land-grabbing and forest-burning for palm oil production will follow, as happened in the wake of decisions in the United States (2007) and EU (2009) to increase the proportion of ethanol in gasoline, leading to a boom in the market for biofuels.

But the link between palm oil and war has a longer history, and that history has a lot to teach us about the capitalist economy of which we are a part.

To say the least, this is no good and also very bad. Now take the cooking oil issue and add all the other issues to it that this imperialist war is exacerbating. Ugh. Also, the implications are quite real for people on the ground trying to survive.

What such campaigns also neglect is the fact that the vast majority of palm oil consumers purchase it not out of ignorance but because of poverty. Palm oil has become the fat of the world’s poor—for example, in India, where cheap cooking oil feeds millions, displacing local artisanal oil-making customs and leading to widespread heart disease (palm oil is extremely high in dangerous saturated fat). Elsewhere, for instance for migrant workers in China’s industrial dormitories or for U.S. prisoners, and even on palm oil plantations themselves, cheap packaged foods—which, like instant ramen noodles, are mostly loaded with palm oil—are all that can be afforded.

Capitalism is at war with people and the planet. Palm oil is both a weapon in that war and an indicator of its severity. Palm oil could be an important and sustainable part of a diversified array of crops grown by small farmers in tropical regions, but that is far from the reality. Around the world, Indigenous, workers’, and peasants organizations are fighting for their rights and developing plans for alternatives. But these would require halting the industrial palm oil sector, something its beneficiaries will fight against, with politics and guns, and they have abundant resources to do so. To meet this challenge, those who live in palm oil importing countries will have to do more than avoid buying certain projects, assuming they can even afford to do so. We will all need to rededicate ourselves to creating a nonviolent economy. This will require localizing the production of many of the foods and products we depend upon, and building a just and sustainable network of global trade that does not sacrifice people on the altar of cheap prices.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its knock-on effects are a reminder that we are, more than ever, an interconnected global species, with profound and terrible powers to transform the world. Taking responsibility for our power will require much more than individual consumer action: it requires us to transcend the racist, destructive legacies of empire. Solving the palm oil curse is one part of this process.

We have a lot of work to do.

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