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The FDA ban on trans fats is good for U.S. consumers — but could be very bad for rain forests

The FDA ban on trans fats is good for U.S. consumers — but could be very bad for rain forests

This week the Food and Drug Administration bowed to a years-long effort by consumer groups to ban artificial trans fats from the U.S. food supply. The agency ruled that partially hydrogenated oils, the source of trans fats, can no longer be “generally recognized as safe,” and gave the food industry three years to eliminate them. As reported in the New York Times, removing industrial trans fats from the American diet by 2018 could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year.

This is good news for U.S. consumers, but it could be very bad news for tropical countries, where the world’s palm oil is grown. Palm oil, derived from the fruit of the oil palm, is commonly used as a substitute for trans fats. The oil remains solid at room temperature, has virtually no flavor after processing, and is the cheapest vegetable oil on the market today — making it a desirable trans-fat substitute in packaged foods, donuts, creamers and other convenience foods.

But palm oil is also the leading cause of forest destruction, land grabbing, and species loss in tropical countries; when forests are cleared for oil palm trees, the destruction is a major contributor to climate change. U.S. palm oil imports have tripled over the last decade, and are set to keep climbing — leading to ongoing devastation and conflict in tropical countries like Indonesia, Liberia, Uganda, and Nigeria.

It’s heartening that the FDA has banned trans fats for the health of U.S. consumers, but our health should not require sacrificing rain forests and community land rights in poor countries.

In order to ensure this ban does not have perverse affects, and to make this a real win, there should be mandatory environmental and social standards on palm oil investment and palm oil purchasing, to ensure that the inevitable uptick in palm oil imports doesn’t destroy tropical rain forests and food sovereignty in palm oil-producing countries.

Thanks to environmental campaigners, the food industry is increasingly scouting its supply chains to reduce the harm from palm oil. But voluntary codes of conduct are insufficient to protect tropical forests and the human rights of forest dwelling people — and no benefit in health in the U.S. should come at the expense of human rights violations in developing countries.

Image credit: MrTinDC, Flickr, Creative Commons