For as long as I can remember I have had a fascination for the all of the great apes – gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans. There was always a particular love I had for those gorgeous red heads of the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. I remember announcing to my mother one night that I would one-day work with orangutans. She nodded and said ‘yes Natalie’ and left it there. Little did she know how serious I was when I made that statement. As the years have moved on, my love for these gentle giants has not diminished. There is even a photo of them on my dream board.
A couple of years ago I was on Facebook late one night and saw a post by a page called Palm Oil Investigations, showing the devastation to the rain forests and orangutans as a result of conflict palm oil. I was naturally horrified by the image. That night I didn’t get much sleep because I was sitting in front of the computer reading everything I could find on the topic and watching as much footage as was available. The little sleep I did get wasn’t great as the suffering of the animals that I loved tormented me. What’s even worse, was this wasn’t an issue that was just hurting this one species of animal, it was also threatening the very existence of the elephants, rhinos and sun bears that live in these rain forests. On top of that, the rain forests that help to support life and give us the oxygen we need to survive was being systematically destroyed. My outlook on food and almost all of the products we use in our everyday life, changed instantly.
In a state of shock the next day as I was talking to friends and working with different clients I started to ask if they had ever heard about this thing ‘palm oil’? Everyone gave me a blank stare. With that, I began to share the information I had come across, I was sharing posts that I hoped would affect them in the same way it did me. Slowly awareness amongst my circle began to build and attitudes began to shift.
I had always thought that I lived a really healthy life, and ate exceptionally well. Once I began discovering which products contained palm oil, I systematically began cutting those products out of my diet. With every product I replaced with a palm oil free alternative I would discover another product. Some items I just gave up eating all together. This has actually been a great thing for me from a health perspective. While I thought I ate really clean foods, it turns out I was still consuming a large amount of processed foods, and with turning my back on palm oil I also turned my back on processed foods (for the most part). Tim Tams and shapes were gone, Dorito’s and C’C’s were gone, even my favourite stock cubes were off the shopping list (for the record Arnotts has now shifted to fully certified sustainable palm oil. Shapes are back in my cupboard!). It was a challenge to shop and know what I was buying because of the lack of labelling. Palm oil is labelled as vegetable oil and a hundred other names. This was a daunting task for me as someone who was determined not to play any part in destroying those forests and the lives of all of it’s inhabitants. For so many of my friends who are raising families and don’t have the time like I do, it’s almost an impossible task. I often received calls from friends as they were in the supermarket, asking which items they should or shouldn’t be buying. I was always happy to help, but didn’t always have the answers. I was so thrilled that so many people were on this journey with me, and trying to make a difference. Maybe we would have a chance to save these forests.
Then I went in to The Bachelor house. That for me was a struggle. I couldn’t do my own shopping, and many every day items were purchased that did contain palm oil. I refused to eat those items, but at times I was hungry as a result. My problem was, once you have seen such haunting images it is impossible to unsee them, and for me in all good conscience I couldn’t suddenly put my morals and beliefs aside. The other side of that was that every girl and producer in the house heard all about this evil oil and the environmental consequences of it being produced.
Since coming out of the house, my involvement with palm oil has moved to a new level. I have organised and hosted fund raising events. I am proudly on the board of Palm Oil Investigations and an ambassador for the Orangutan Crisis Foundation. Each and every day I am learning new things about the cause and able to share what I am learning with my networks.
With all of this said, from all that I had learned I was fighting for the world to be palm oil free. I saw fully certified sustainable palm oil as a step in the right direction, but certainly not the answer. From most feedback I was reading online, there seemed to be two schools of thought:
- Palm Oil is great!
- No palm oil is ok. We need a palm oil free world!
You can imagine my shock when recently I discovered the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Last Tuesday, the first ever Palm Oil Seminar in Australia took place. I was lucky enough to MC this event and was thrilled to be present. This was a conference that had speakers from sanctuaries that work on the ground with the animals affected by the crisis, to palm oil companies, Greenpeace and companies that are currently using fully certified sustainable palm oil in their products. Invited to the seminar were heads of food and personal care companies along with consumers. It was a massive day that was both confronting and fascinating. I think every person present left with their heads swimming with the amount of information that was put forward.
The biggest piece of information that I walked away with was palm oil is fantastic on so many levels. It produces a huge amount of oil per hectare (more than any other type of oil can). It is a great, tasteless oil that can be used for so many purposes and it does great things for the local economy and the local people. Where the issue comes in is how the palm oil is grown and who the growers are. There are companies that are illegally going in to the rain forests, illegally chopping down the trees, killing the wildlife, stealing the babies and selling them in to the illegal wildlife trade and then planting their palm trees to produce conflict palm oil. It is because of these people/organisations that people are so anti palm oil and fighting so hard to get it taken out of our food and personal care products.
On the flip side of this, there are plantations that are on land that has been legally purchased, and the palm oil produced is fully sustainable. These companies want to do the right thing by the environment and wildlife. There are plantations that are in Papua New Guinea and Malaysia that are not affecting the environment adversely. It was such a relief to know that even though palm oil is here to stay, it doesn’t need to mean the end for the rainforests and all of its inhabitants.
We need to keep fighting for fully certified sustainable palm oil and the implementation of extremely strong policies to go above and beyond certification – tracking the supply and ensuring there is NO conflict in that supply. Palm oil is actually better for the environment in that we need less land to produce more oil. Other types of oil would require much more land to produce the same amounts of oil that a palm plantation is currently producing.
With such a complex issue, it is easy for your head to start spinning when so much information is coming at you, and it can be completely overwhelming. There are many people that may disagree with my stance, but when palm oil producers, sanctuary workers, and the independent companies that track the supplies of palm oil all agree that we need palm oil and that it is fundamentally a great oil, it’s just the practices that need to change I’m going to listen to them.
I have not yet realised my dream of being in the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra working with the animals I love so much, but I am working incredibly hard to make sure that they are safe in this world and will still be on this earth in 20 years time. I know I will get there and be able to work with them soon enough.