It's in 50% of Packaged Foods, but the Cost Is Steep

The Baffler looks at the problem with palm oil plantations in Guatemala
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 5, 2022 3:25 PM CDT
Palm Oil Riches Can Mean Land Grabs, Ecocide, Murder
Fruit bunches from the African oil palm are transported from a plantation to an extraction plant, in Sayaxche, Guatemala. The Central American country is one of the most efficient at producing palm oil; a key ingredient in half of all packaged foods.   (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Palm oil is in half of all packaged supermarket products, not only in foods but also cosmetics. The stout palm oil tree has always been an important food source in its native West Africa, but its use in global consumer products has exploded in the past few decades. Today, Indonesia and Malaysia are the largest producers, but Guatemala is the biggest source in Central America. Like other palm economies, it “is plagued by problems borne from and enabled by the world’s appetite for cheap vegetable fat,” according to a report in the Baffler by Alessandra Bergamin, who found evidence of greed, corruption, ecocide, and murder in the Petén region, which accounts for a third of Guatemala’s land area.

First, company reps arrive promising big economic opportunity, but it’s nothing more than a land grab. Those who resist are threatened and soon find their lands encircled. Aside from stripping the land of biodiversity, palm plantations require oxidation ponds to collect insecticides and palm effluent. The latter is organic waste that is “one hundred times more polluting than domestic sewage” if left untreated. In Petén, a pond overflow poisoned the Pasión River in 2015, killing thousands of fish. Attempts at legal redress were met with a spate of kidnappings, a murder by masked gunmen, and a return to business as usual. The Geneva-based Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil provides “Certified Sustainable Palm Oil” tags to producers who meet certain social and environmental standards, but Bergamin’s reporting suggests community complaints are ignored in the process. Read the full story. (More palm oil stories.)

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