What’s found in more than half of all the products on sale at the supermarket? Hint: It’s edible, it’s popular and it’s responsible for a significant share of the eco-problems plaguing the planet.

I’d like to devote this column to a topic that, were it listed on a spectrum of choices, would probably rank down around those banking disclosure forms accompanying your monthly credit card statement as “information I’d love to learn more about.”

The topic is palm oil.

What does that have to do with livestock production, you ask? A lot.

For starters, it should be obvious to anyone invested in animal agriculture that the attack line for the organized and the silent-but-sympathetic criticism of meat production is focused primarily on environmental impact. Although the sources quoted are always nonpartisan — in theory — the talking points are honed to shopworn clichés:

  • “It takes up to 8,000 gallons of water to produce a single hamburger patty, compared with only 100 gallons for an entire loaf of bread.” (Pacific Institute)
  • “Livestock are responsible for 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.” (UN Food and Agricultural Organization)
  • “About 30 percent of the world’s ice-free land mass is devoted to livestock production.” (Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment)
  • “An American family’s annual beef consumption requires more 260 gallons of fossil fuel.” (EarthSave)
  • “Only 10 percent of the energy captured by plants is passed on to animals that eat the plants. If people eat the animals, it’s only 1 percent.” (Mark Bittman, New York Times)

Admittedly, that last statement is a bit esoteric, but it’s right in line with all the other sound bites activists constantly hurl at the industry. Used to be that meat eaters were flogged with accusations that red meat is killing people. Now, we’re being warned that it’s killing the planet.

Of course, there is substance to much of the data bandied about regarding energy, resource and land use consumption attributed to global livestock production. All human activity produces greenhouse gas emissions, all transformative processes require energy and all food production involves the use of land, water and fuel.

When activists insist that, “If we just ate one less serving of meat, it would be the equivalent of taking thousands of cars off the road,” that theoretical calculation could just as easily be applied to buying fewer manufactured goods, living in smaller houses, traveling fewer miles by car, etc.

Meat isn’t the culprit, it’s just one of dozens of factors affecting our modern lifestyles.

The big boom

Which brings us to palm oil, a product that is almost exclusively connected with modern lifestyles.

The tropical African palm tree can produce fruit for 30 years or more, and palm tree plantations yield more oil per acre than just about any another oilseed crop. That’s partly why palm oil is now the world’s top vegetable oil. Between 2000 and 2009, Indonesia, the world’s leading supplier, increased its exports by about 11 million tons, according to the Indonesian Palm Oil Commission (IPOC).

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil group now estimates that fully one-half of all products sold in supermarkets contain palm oil: margarine, cereals, crackers, cookies, bread and other baked goods, as well as soap, laundry products and cosmetics.

However, in Indonesia alone expansion of palm oil production has destroyed more than 840,000 acres of rainforests just in the last decade. According to the IPOC, by 2020 the government plans to establish 3.5 million acres of new palm oil plantations carved out of the country’s dwindling expanse of tropical habitat.

That means local and indigenous populations will be uprooted and numerous endangered species will be imperiled, including the iconic orangutan and the great ape. Most importantly, such clearcutting causes nearly one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Anti-industry activists have gained enormous traction by claiming that eating a fast-food hamburger is a direct cause of climate change, since several Latin American nations allowed their rainforests to be systematically cleared for soybean cultivation and cattle production.

However, the same activists advocating the merits of switching to “plant-based foods” as the cure for meat’s environmental destruction utterly fail to account for palm oil’s eco-impact. According to Conservation International, when a hectare (2.1 acres) of tropical peatlands, which contain huge deposits of carbon-rich forest debris, are drained to become an oil palm plantation, an estimated 5,000 tons of CO2 are released over the next 25 years, versus only 500 to 900 tons of CO2 released by clearing the same expanse of rainforest for cattle production.

Despite that fact, hardly anyone condemns palm oil. In fact, you rarely even see the phrase “palm oil” appearing on food packaging, because manufacturers can get away with calling it “vegetable oil.”

We now know, or at least we should know, that switching from animal fats to vegetable oils — which until 50 years ago were considered strictly industrial ingredients for making lubricants, waxes and paints — is unnecessary, unwarranted and unhealthy.

Not only for human physiology, which evolved over the millennia on a diet of animal foods, but for the health of the planet’s ecology, as well.

The talking point needs to be that margarine — not meat — is killing us slowly.

And the Earth even faster.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.