What does it really mean to be vegan? On face value, it means not eating or using animal products. It also refers to abstaining from products tested on animals (whenever possible, I mean if you need life saving medicine that was once tested on animals, take the medicine! It’s important to have reasonable exceptions to most rules in life.) Certain issues may fall under the radar if they have negative impacts on animals indirectly. A prime example of this is palm oil.
Palm oil is a very commonly used type of vegetable oil. One of the reasons it’s so popular is because it’s very inexpensive and can be used in food, cosmetics, and biofuel. So, what’s the problem? Oil palms grow in warm, humid climates. The ideal place to provide those conditions are rainforests. In order to meet the growing demand, the land is bulldozed, and palm oil plantations are planted. This may lead you to believe that this is an environmental issue and not an animal rights one. However, the result of a shrinking rainforest is animals (some endangered) losing their homes. Another common occurrence is setting fire to the land that needs to be cleared, which not only kills many animals in addition to destroying their home, but also negatively impacts the health of local people.
But in the true fashion of how the world works, it’s rarely as simple as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. You could see the damage that the demand for palm oil is doing and try to avoid financially supporting it, but then what? It’s sort of like when a bad guy is killed in a film and he’s just replaced with an even worse guy. Because while palm oil is unsustainable, so are a lot of other things. If the demand for palm oil goes down the demand for different oils will probably go up. How about coconut oil? Well, they grow in warm, humid climates (like the rainforest) too. So, what’s to say that an increased demand for coconut oil wouldn’t have the same result as palm oil? In fact, palm oil yields more oil per acre than it’s alternatives, so an increased demand for those alternatives could possibly cause even more destruction.
We live in a non-vegan world. For someone new to veganism it may feel like no foods are safe. First they’re cutting out all meat, dairy, eggs, and honey. Then they’re asked to cut out palm oil. It’s not long before they hear about other questionable foods. There’s concerns over coffee, almonds, avocados, bananas, and on and on. Just because a food is technically vegan certainly does not mean it’s production employs ethical practices. Regardless, in my opinion, this territory is for people who are more established in their vegan lifestyle. If you overwhelm yourself with too much information early on you may be sabotaging your efforts in the long run. That being said, there is nothing wrong with constantly striving to be educated and to make the most ethical decisions you can with what you know.
Palm oil is commonly found in processed foods, such as Earth Balance (vegan butter) and several vegan cheeses. It’s my ultimate goal to move towards a more whole food diet with processed foods being more of a treat than a staple. As I work towards this the result will inevitably be purchasing fewer products with palm oil as well. The biggest struggle for me will likely be replacing Earth Balance because it’s by far the most affordable vegan butter in my area. However, many things that were once a struggle for me no longer are and I have every reason to believe that I can figure this out as well. Don’t be impatient with yourself and allow yourself the flexibility to make your own priorities and find what works for you.
If you’re interested in learning more about palm oil I would highly recommend this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-VW0cuZcSk