I don't buy pop and popcorn at the movies. The only reason, until recently, has been that I am a penny-pincher and the thought of the biggest part of $20 going for popcorn and pop gives me a sore stomach.
N ow I found another reason to think twice about buying popcorn at the movies. The theatres ‘butter’ popcorn with palm oil because it is cheaper than butter and many other vegetable oils. More and more of it comes from palm oil plantations that are creating ecological concerns.
In an article being prepared for Current Biology, researchers lay out concerns about how the increasing number of palm oil plantations will affect great ape populations. They say that almost forty percent of the distribution of great ape species on unprotected lands overlaps suitable oil palm areas.
Palm oil has become extremely popular in the last thirty years because it is cheap. It is cheap because the trees are super productive: they bear fruit in just four years and continue producing for twenty-five. The trees are native to Africa and palm oil has been used as a cooking oil for centuries.
Thirty years or so ago manufacturers discovered the cost benefits of palm oil and huge swaths of forests in Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia were knocked down in favour of palm oil plantations. Since then the oil is being used increasingly in everything from foodstuffs, to soap to cosmetics. The World Wildlife Fund has estimated that half of the products on the shelves of major supermarkets contain palm oil.
The researchers reporting results in Current Biology say guidelines are needed urgently for expansion of oil palm in Africa to minimize the impacts on apes and other wildlife. The great apes, which include chimpanzees and gorillas, already are threatened by hunting and habitat loss and the worry is that palm oil expansion without controls will put them on the final stretch to extinction.
No one is saying don’t buy popcorn at the theatre, but we all should be aware that palm oil production poses risks to the global environment if people don’t pay attention and demand controls.
Current Biology can be found online at: http://www.cell.com/current-biology/home. More on palm oil can be found at: http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/footprint/agriculture/palm_oil/.