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Oregon Zoo takes initiative to protect habitat from deforestation

PHOTO BY MICHAEL DURHAM, COURTESY OF OREGON ZOO - Vivian, a Malayan sun bear, climbs a log at the Oregon Zoo. Sun bears are one of many species threatened by deforestation to make way for palm oil plantations. Don't boycott palm oil; advocate for responsible palm oil instead.

That's the approach the Oregon Zoo took this week in announcing a new wildlife-friendly purchasing plan for treats sold at the zoo.

The world's most widely consumed vegetable oil — found in about half of all packaged foods sold in American grocery stores — is harvested by clear-cutting tropical forests that are vital habitats to endangered orangutans, tigers, Asian elephants and other species.

Zoo leaders announced that as of August, the zoo will only sell products containing palm oil if the companies

producing them are working to address the negative impacts of the palm oil industry.

Environmental advocates are lauding the effort.

“The Oregon Zoo has been invaluable in making deforestation-free palm oil the industry norm,” said Miriam Swaffer, corporate policy advocate for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The zoo has inspired the community to take action and tell America’s biggest corporations that — for the sake of our climate, tropical forests and endangered species — now is the time to adopt strong deforestation-free palm oil policy. Oregon Zoo supporters recently brought Starbucks to the negotiating table by posting about the company’s lack of a deforestation-free commitment on social media.”

The purchasing plan follows the zoo’s Use Your Reach campaign, launched last August, which empowers consumers to speak up for responsible palm oil.

Zoo officials believe that consumers should advocate for more responsible production of palm oil, such as by planting on degraded land instead of forests and growing higher-yield crops.

The World Wildlife Fund and Union of Concerned Scientists share that view.

In 2014, Oregon Zoo staff inventoried all food products sold at the zoo and identified 40 items that were either known or suspected to contain palm oil.

Most were made by companies that had already joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil — a nonprofit working to address negative impacts of the palm oil industry, but 11 items weren’t.

Food service staff then worked with vendors to eliminate those products — including Maruchan’s instant noodles — and identify either non-palm oil or roundtable-member alternatives.

“The majority of our palm oil use is in candy, cookies and other snacks that people like to have while visiting the zoo,” says the zoo’s food and beverage manager, John Sterbis. “In one case, a vendor called us after we had stopped using the product — Cookies and Cream Dippin’ Dots — to let us know the company that creates Oreo cookies, Mondelez International, had since joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. That meant we could start ordering them again — but more importantly, it meant vendors were responding positively to public requests to use deforestation-free palm oil.”

The zoo is now exploring how to incentivize companies that have gone beyond the roundtable to make significant progress toward deforestation-free palm oil.

Four of the companies — Mars, Hershey, Kellogg and Mondelez — already rank among the best in terms of their efforts to cut deforestation from their palm oil supply chains.

Zoo staff hope that going public with their purchasing plan will also help consumers understand why boycotting palm oil is not the answer.

“It’s intuitive to think avoiding palm oil will help wildlife, but unfortunately that’s not the case because different vegetable oils can be easily substituted in many applications,” says Calen May-Tobin, lead analyst for tropical forests with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“Most of us have experienced this firsthand. If you’re cooking dinner and realize you’re out of olive oil, rather than head to the store and buy some, you just reach for the canola oil instead. So the problem isn’t with palm oil, but arises when forests are converted to plantations. This leads to loss of habitat and millions of tons of carbon emissions. The solution isn’t to boycott palm oil, but rather to demand that companies use and produce palm that is deforestation-free.”