As a father to two young daughters, story time is one of the highlights of my day. Not just because it comes just before bed time, either.

Sharon and I have been reading to our children when they go to bed every night since they were born. The bed time routine now rules our lives. Last year, my elder daughter went through a phase of demanding Jack and the Beanstalk. 

Just in case you’ve forgotten, the story begins with Jack trading in the family’s broken-down old cow for a handful of magic beans. Overnight, magic beans grow into an enormous beanstalk. Climbing the beanstalk, Jack enters a land that will make him rich, but is also fraught with danger.

Let’s swap the magic beans for oil palm. It’s 100 years since oil palm was first exploited commercially in Malaysia. In the years since independence, it has only grown in importance to Malaysia and Indonesia. Like Jack’s magic beans, oil palm delivers quickly, and provides a steady source of income. The trees take only five years to reach maturity and can fruit twice a month, all year-around. No wonder the Malaysian government and farming communities shifted from rubber, which takes longer to reach maturity, and is a more difficult crop to harvest. Falling rubber prices and the availability of cheap synthetic rubber saw many plantations switch over in recent years. Oil palm now accounts for almost half of the agriculture industry in Malaysia.

Like Jack’s magic beans, however, there is a downside. According to the WWF, about 6 million hectares, or half of the operational palm oil estates in Malaysia and Indonesia are on land previously occupied by secondary rainforest. Efforts to increase the productivity of palm oil estates have not been successful, so in order to meet increasing demand, more rainforest has to be cleared, often by burning, dramatically contributing to carbon emissions.

Palm oil can be found in everything, from breakfast cereal to shampoos. Deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia accounts for over 2.5Gt CO2, over 80% of their total carbon emissions, and almost 4 times the annual emissions from the global aviation industry.

Forest coverage of Borneo has fallen from 75 per cent to approximately 50 per cent since 1970. Some sources claim that logging has taken place in 80 per cent of Borneo’s rainforests. Only 28 per cent of the island now retains primary rainforest, and the pace of forest loss has been increasing since the turn of the century.

Rapid deforestation and degradation has a high impact on native species, such as elephants and orangutans, which are used to being able to roam freely across great distances in the rainforest. The conversion of rainforests to monocultural crops has led to massive biodiversity loss, and extinction looms for many species.

In the story, Jack steals the goose that lays the golden egg from the giant, and then chops down the beanstalk, killing the giant. When it comes to palm oil, I wonder if we have killed the goose, and the giant is breathing down our neck.

Five things you can do to help:

  1. Come on a SEASFiRE programme, and educate yourself about the rainforest, palm oil, and other environmental issues. Contact us to find out how to get involved.
  2. Check your ingredients. Palm oil is in half of all processed food. On average, each person eats 17 pounds of palm oil each year. If you can cut this, you cut palm oil demand, so try to buy only non-palm oil products.
  3. If you must buy products with palm oil, buy from companies which are trying to improve their supply chains, and are verifiably committed to sustainability. The Union of Concerned Scientists in the USA and Greenpeace have published scorecards of large palm-oil consumers, such as Ferrero and Nestle.
  4. Buy only independently-certified timber products, so you’re not unintentionally contributing to deforestation.
  5. Consume less. We are taking more from the planet than it can sustainably deliver. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it.