Is Your Halloween Candy Hurting Orangutans?

A wild orangutan in Sumatra | Photo: Exotissimo Travel, some rights reserved

Orangutans are dying and your Halloween candy could be making things worse.

Well, sort of. Swaths of primary forest in Sumatra and Borneo are being lost either to logging or to palm oil plantations. And those are forests that the endangered red apes rely upon for their very survival.

If you're up on biodiversity threats around the world you've surely heard of the threat of palm oil, a substance included in lots of packaged foods, but if you haven't, it would be hard to know whether your favorite snacks – or, indeed, your favorite Halloween treats – contain it. That's because "palm oil" rarely shows up on the ingredients list. It hides behind scary-sounding words like "sodium lauryl sulfate" or "sodium laureth sulfate." When people purchase products at the supermarket that contain palm oil, demand for the product goes up, and that accelerates the destruction of the rainforests.

Palm oil is one of the few vegetable-based oils that remains solid at room temperature. Food manufacturers like that quality. For most of us, it's not quite as simple as avoiding palm oil altogether, because it's just so pervasive. But it is possible to purchase products made with sustainably sourced palm oil, and to eschew those that don't make an effort to be orangutan friendly.

"There's no 100 percent consensus about what makes sustainable palm oil," says Tom Mills, Director of Development for the Los Angeles-based Orangutan Conservancy, "but the real common [factor] is that no primary forest is destroyed. People in the conservation world would say, 'grow the palm oil on land where trees have already been taken down,' rather than going to the next ten thousand hectares and tearing down those trees." Other things that contribute to sustainability, according to Mills, are fair working conditions for the local workers as well as fair wages.

Here's another thing that companies committed to sustainability do: when they plant their crops, they ensure that they leave enough natural cover to act as corridors between wider patches of primary forest. That allows orangutans the ability to safely traverse larger areas. It provides for them the same sort of connectivity that Angelenos are trying to provide for mountain lions by constructing the bridge near Liberty Canyon.

The key, says Mills, is for companies to make their profits in a way that's respectful of the little habitat remaining for orangutans and all the other species with which they share their forests, including humans.

To help consumers, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado has created an app that you can download (here are handy links for the iTunes and Google Play stores) to help you identify who the most and least responsible companies are. Think of it as the orangutan version of Monterey Bay Aquarium's well-known Seafood Watch app.

Hanging their gummy heads in shame | Photo: Stefan Munder, some rights reserved

Here's a handy cheat sheet to take with you when you go shopping for Halloween candy. Some of the highest-rated companies, according to the app, include Hershey's, Mars, Wrigley, Kraft, Lindt, and Justin's. (That means you can gobble up all the Snickers you want.)

Nestle and Ghirardelli are rated as "good," rather than "excellent," which means they are working on sustainability but aren't quite operating at the highest levels.

The lowest rating the app gives is "needs improvement," so any product with that rating is best avoided. That sadly includes Haribo, which makes those delicious Gummi Bears. If these are some of your favorite treats, consider writing to the company and urge them to improve their operations to make life better for all creatures.

"The public really does have a lot of control," says Mills. "Any given year, 1,000 to 2,000 orangutans are killed or displaced due to palm oil." Today there are perhaps as few as 45,000 orangutans left in the wild, and we can all do our part to ensure they survive.

Banner photo: WxMom, some rights reserved

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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