Future Tense

Hold the Cookies, Save the Climate

Everyone knows meat is bad for the environment. But so is an ingredient commonly found in junk food.

palm oil tree cut by a worker during a forest restoration.
Most of the world gets its edible oil from the fruit of oil palm trees, the destruction of which can have a devastating environmental impact.

Photo by Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP/Getty Images

This article is part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University. On Thursday, Jan. 15, Future Tense will hold an event in Washington, D.C., titled “How Will Human Ingenuity Handle a Warming Planet?” For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Imagine if eating packaged cookies and crackers were as socially unacceptable as smoking a cigarette. People would sneak to the balcony to tear open packages of Oreos. Travelers would slink into designated rooms to scarf down candy bars. “No junk food” signs would adorn the halls of public buildings.

Waistlines, nutrition, and health care costs would all by improved by a junk food–free world. So would the climate, the rain forests, and the dwindling populations of wild orangutans in Southeast Asia.

The benefits of eating less red meat have already permeated the consciousnesses of those seeking a climatically responsible lifestyle. Indeed, in the United States, people on average consume less red meat than they did a few decades ago, though likely more for health than climate concerns. The consumption of processed foods, with their high content of sugar and oils, has skyrocketed in the other direction. The trend has helped fuel the obesity epidemic in the U.S. and throughout the world. But its impact on climate gets far less attention than the energy-sucking effect of hamburgers and steaks.

Edible vegetable oil appears in the list of ingredients in nearly every processed food, from ready-to-eat frozen meals to granola bars and crackers. Oils with long shelf lives and high frying temperatures are key ingredients for the processed food industry. At the turn of the 20th century, vegetable oils were not a major part of the human diet. Butter, lard, tallow, and red meat were the main sources of fat. As agriculture industrialized, motorized machines and petroleum-based chemicals enabled us to extract oil from the seeds of cotton, soy, corn, and the mustardlike rape plant. As soybeans spread across the Midwest, oil became cheap and abundant. The remaining soy meal served as feed for livestock.

Technology to transform liquid soybean oil into solids such as margarine and shortening provided another boost to the processed food industry. Solid forms lasted longer on the shelf and needed no refrigeration. It took until the 1990s for the heart-clogging effects of these trans fats to come to the fore.

The majority of oil used in the U.S. today is extracted from soybeans. But much of the rest of the world, notably India and China, gets its edible oil from a tropical source: the fruit of oil palm trees. For centuries, farmers in West Africa have grown the palm and used its oil for cooking. Now palm oil is the darling cash crop of Southeast Asia. Plantations are beginning to spread into rain forests in the Amazon and Africa. It’s not hard to see why. Palm oil is exceptionally productive and highly profitable. It has become an international commodity on par with petroleum, coffee, and soy. Its high fat content and low cost make it appealing for products ranging from biodiesel to shampoo to biscuits, cookies, and all kinds of processed food.

Palm oil currently comprises a small portion of oil consumed in the United States. But it is rapidly replacing soybean oil as a substitute for banned trans fats. And demand around the world is soaring as incomes rise and people can afford to have more fats in their diets.

Palm oil companies that clear rain forests to expand their plantations have captured the wrath of environmentalists, with just cause. Fires for clearing dense forests, like those on the Indonesian territories of Sumatra and Kalimantan, burn the biomass in the trees. Thick layers of carbon-rich peat accumulated over millions of years also go up in smoke. The carbon that goes into the atmosphere accounts for Indonesia’s main source of greenhouse gases. Homes for animals—especially orangutans—are destroyed in the process, as are livelihoods for local people who depend on the forests.

Companies are now paying attention to the damage. They are looking for more climate- and habitat-friendly alternatives to the forest-clearing bonanza that the palm oil boom created. Nestlé, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Walmart, and Procter & Gamble are among those who have pledged to purchase their products from deforestation-free sources. Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme have responded to recent protests and promised to use only conflict-free palm oil to fry their doughnuts. Producers who sell the oil to these buyers, including giants such as Sime Darby, have pledged to avoid deforestation, stop clearing on carbon-rich peatlands, and respect the rights of local communities. Procedures are in place so they can certify that their palm oil is sustainably produced. How these pledges will play out on the ground remains to be seen, but the message has been heard in the corporate boardroom.

The protests against palm oil have raised awareness about the damage that may be wrought by the world’s voracious appetite for cheap fat. They also bring up many thorny questions about the right path to a more equitable world, that has economic opportunities for all, and won’t destroy the planet in the process. Do the environmental costs of palm oil from Southeast Asia outweigh the damage from industrial farming of soybeans in the prairies of the Midwest? Should those countries with remaining stocks of rich, lush rain forests be obliged to forgo the benefits of developing their agriculture? With the push toward certification of sustainably produced palm oil, how can the millions of poor oil palm farmers afford to go through the expensive process to get certified?

These knotty questions have no obvious answers. But one fact is clear. Whether it’s squeezed from soybeans or from the fruits of palm trees, oil in processed food is a losing proposition. It’s bad for nutrition and it wastes much-needed land that could produce healthier food. The atmosphere accumulates greenhouse gases, and waistlines pile on fat. People in the street have little control over international climate negotiations and discussions between environmental groups and companies in closed rooms. But if reasonably priced options are available, people can control what they put in their grocery baskets and feed their families.

With land in scarce supply and demand for food climbing, the planet cannot afford to grow food that makes people sick instead of healthy. In total, agriculture contributes about a quarter of all greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Much of the output is feeding the unhealthy diets of an increasingly overweight world. Food is essential, but there’s nothing healthy about sugary and greasy processed junk.

Let’s be practical. It’s unrealistic to expect most people to consider the climate as they rip open packages of crackers made with oil. The climate crisis will not be solved by selfless solutions that benefit faraway places and future generations. It could be alleviated by solutions that align with more immediate interests. Profit and reputation are obviously among those interests, hence the corporate attention to the bottom line in taking on their sustainable palm oil pledges. For the rest of us, benefits for our health can also be a plus for climate. It’s not just saying no to a burger or rib-eye. We have to say no to the processed foods that have negative ramifications for both climate and health. Vegetable oils ubiquitous in junk food can be avoided simply by eating real food. The climate will be a winner, and so will our diets.