Candy Bars in a Pile

It’s the spookiest season of the year, and time to stock up on candy and chocolates for the trick-or-treaters in our neighborhoods. But while Halloween fans decorate their doorsteps and craft their costumes, it’s a good time to consider what’s in the sweets we’re buying – and not just the sugar. Especially during this time of year, palm oil, which is present in Halloween candy as well as a wide variety of foods, has become a major conversation point among conservationists due to the ecological damage caused by its production.

Palm oil is derived from the African oil palm tree, which was introduced to Southeast Asia over a century ago, initially as an ornamental plant. However, its useful culinary properties have resulted in it appearing in nearly 50% of the packaged goods you find in a grocery store, including food such as chocolate as well as personal care items like shampoo. African oil palms grow nearly year-round. The oil has no scent nor color, is semi-solid at room temperature, resists oxidization, and is stable in high-temperature cooking – all qualities that make it an ideal additive for things like food spreads, shelf-stable products, and as a frying oil to make foods crisper and crunchier.

With all these benefits, the consumer demand for this oil is high, and for more than just Halloween treats. Half of the global population relies on palm oil as part of their diets, and it is frequently utilized as a cooking oil in African and Asian communities. And not only is palm oil used in the diets of people, but it is often incorporated into animal feed as well. Though native to West Africa, today around 85% of all palm oil is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia, where much of the controversy around its production lies.

Rows of Palm Trees

Because African oil palms grow in tropical climates, these trees are rooted in some of the most biodiverse forests and jungles in the world. The development of palm oil plantations in these ecosystems leads to deforestation, which causes two ecological problems. The first concern is when the forests are destroyed, the forests’ peat soils release dense amounts of carbon, allowing millions of tons of greenhouse gases to escape into the atmosphere and worsening climate change. Within the last 20 years, Indonesia alone lost approximately 25 million acres of forest, which is more land area than all of Ireland – a high price to pay for our candy and chocolate.

The other ecological problem caused by deforestation is that threatened and endangered species, such as orangutans, tigers, sun bears, Tomistomas, chimpanzees, Sumatran rhinos, and Borneo elephants, lose their habitat. On the island of Borneo, located in Southeast Asia and home to critically endangered Bornean orangutans, at least half of all deforestation that occurred between 2005 and 2015 involved palm oil development – and every year, around 750 to 1,250 of these orangutans are killed in encounters with humans, largely in relation to agricultural development.

Environmental threats aren’t the only concern surrounding palm oil production. The industry plays an important role driving employment in Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as the development of infrastructure in rural communities. However, the high demand for oil creates a larger labor demand, which leaves fewer laborers available to continue producing local foods. And communities that have lost access to forests due to palm oil production have traditionally not received any fair compensation for the loss of resources.

So, with the concerns around palm oil farming and its relationship to our candy consumption, what is being done to reduce the impact?

Crocodile with Head Out of Water

It's important to note that bans on palm oil are not recommended by all conservationists. Organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) advise against bans because palm oil is a more efficient vegetable oil to produce than others – in fact, the oil palm tree produces about 40% of all vegetable oil, and on less than 6% of the land used to grow oil crops worldwide. Cutting palm oil production would put more land and biodiversity at risk of being developed to grow less productive crops. It would also hurt the economy in Malaysia, Indonesia, and other palm oil-producing nations where the industry provides jobs to local communities.

The biggest opportunity for change lies in the hands of producers and stakeholders in the industry itself. Fortunately, many have already changed their practices to help protect at-risk ecosystems. In 2013, conservation advocates convinced one of the world’s largest palm oil producers, Wilmar, to adopt new policies limiting deforestation, encouraging many other major producers to do the same the following year. This came a few years after Indonesia halted new permits for developments in forests and peatlands. Organizations such as WWF continue to collaborate with government officials to help develop laws to protect vulnerable habitats in relation to the palm oil trade. The European Union also implemented a law to prevent companies from selling palm oil in the EU if it was grown on recently deforested lands.

The industry is still not fully sustainable, as around 47,000 acres of Indonesian forests were still cut down last year and most oil palms still grow on formerly forested lands that have not been restored. However, policies have made a notable impact – a study from 2019 found that palm oil-related deforestation has declined steadily in Indonesia since its peak in 2009, and in 2021 it hit its lowest point in over two decades.

Consumers can get involved in supporting sustainable palm oil operations by being conscientious about the products they buy. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), which is a global alliance of zoos and aquariums, encourages the use of the PalmOil Scan App, which was initially developed by the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado to help consumers know which products at the grocery store, including Halloween candies, contain sustainably sourced palm oil versus unsustainable oil. To promote this goal, WAZA is partnered with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which was founded in 2004 to develop and implement standards for growers to maintain best practices for palm oil production. The app is available both on the App Store and Google Play and can be used to either search for products and their sustainability grade in the search bar or to scan the barcode of a product for the same results. Information and downloads can be found on WAZA’s website here.

Luckily for trick-or-treaters and those handing out their treats, many popular candies and chocolates such as REESE’S Cups, M&Ms®, Skittles®, Starburst® and Snickers® are now made with responsibly sourced palm oil thanks to years of efforts from advocates working with leaders in the palm oil industry. Make sure you load up your candy bowls with plenty of these options for the sweetest way to enjoy Halloween!

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