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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Parting with Palm

Recently Food Empowerment Project completed our website with our final section on Ethical Food Choices. Included in that section was a description of the palm oil industry.

With many of the sections on our website I am very familiar with why we are discussing the issues, and I had already made changes to what I eat based on what I knew or was learning.

With palm I was less familiar. In fact, much of what I had been reading (through the work of my paid job) was the use of palm for biodiesel and the negative impacts this was having on the animals and environment.

However, when our volunteer writer, Rick Kelley, sent the first draft, I knew immediately I was going to have to make changes.

And that is why I decided to write this blog, because many of you, like me, are learning about this issue and do not want to contribute to what is happening in places like Malaysia, Sumatra, and Cameroon, where deforestation has been devastating to animals such as tigers, rhinos, elephants, and of course, the orangutans, who have actually been killed in order to clear land for palm plantations.

Meanwhile, workers are exploited by the working conditions and chemical use, and indigenous people are forced off their land to make room for palm plantations.

Now, I know shopping or eating by our ethics can’t solve all of the problems impacting the animals and people, but for those of us at Food Empowerment Project, it is an important first step. When we started learning more about slavery in the chocolate industry, we did our research and did a lot of outreach on the issue. And now we have started an effort to get Clif Bar to disclose where they source their chocolate from in order to make companies accountable to consumers who do not want chocolate from the slave trade.
So for those of you who have asked us to start a campaign on the palm issue, please know we just might, but we aren’t ready yet.

We know that some vegans have been a bit slow to come around to see how these social justice issues are connected (whether it be human or non-human animals), but we are hopeful that these are all issues we can work on together.

Getting off margarine has been easier than I thought, but admittedly, I am not there yet. I have been holding on to our last stick of Earth Balance so as to not waste it. But my pancakes taste fine without margarine as does my corn on the cob. But it is something I think about now, and just like with other cruelty-free vegan choices I have made in my life, I am sure I will have dreams that I am accidentally eating food with palm oil, and I know it will eventually become routine to look for it when I am reading ingredients.

To make it easier, Food Empowerment Project has revised our vegan food list. The list still includes vegan products, but now those with palm ingredients have a line going through them. We decided to keep them listed so that people would not be confused as to whether we knew of a product’s existence or not. We have done this to make it convenient for people who do care about this issue to quickly see what products are vegan and which ones do or do not contain palm.

We ask you to please help us to populate our list of palm-free vegan products, and don’t be scared to look at the list – I imagine many of your favorites will still be listed!

A HUGE thank you to all of the volunteers who helped to double check our list so we knew which products did and did not contain palm oil: Lisa Goetz, Molly Jordan, Jessica Spain, Melissa Tappis, Joseph Valdez, Michelle Waters, Heather Veleanu, and Nikki Woelk.

Photo courtesy of Ashley Schaeffer/RAN. Thank you!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Is Divine truly divine?

Food Empowerment Project has received a lot of pushback from corporations and those with chocolate certification systems about our chocolate list because we do not simply give a blanket approval to these schemes; however, we do pride ourselves on recognizing that this issue is complex and there are a lot of grey areas.

When it comes to comments about our list, we have received the most from consumers who are disappointed about particular companies (such as Clif Bar), but the most feedback we have received from companies is regarding Divine Chocolate.

We have had numerous phone calls and email discussions about Divine, and our stance has been that since child labor was found in the fields of their cooperative, we could not (at the time) put them on our recommended list. We have never said the door was shut.

Recently, I was contacted by the CEO of Divine regarding our stance on cacao from Ghana. We had a lengthy conversation about where we were coming from, and she took the time to explain to me what was happening at the Kuapa Kokoo Cooperative, an organization established in Ghana in 1993.

I am not going to go into that in this blog, because Divine’s website can explain it better than I, but she talked about their sourcing with pride. Wouldn’t it be great if all corporations could beam with pride and really mean it?

When I asked about the children found on the farm, she explained to me that “they” (the farmers) were working on this issue to make sure those problems with education and monitoring didn’t happen again.

And that stuck with me. She had been telling me that they were the only fair trade cooperative and I heard her, but not until she said “they” did I have this, well, epiphany. She didn’t say, “We are going to do this” or how any scheme was going to be adjusted, but what “they,” the farmers, were going to do.

When looking for solutions to the lack of access to healthy foods in communities of color and low-income communities, I have talked about one of the problems being not asking those who are living with it. I feel that decisions being made by well-intentioned people without input from those who are impacted is a mistake. 

And this struck me as the same thing. What is going to help end the issue of child slavery in the cacao industry may not come from Westerners telling the farmers what to do – they know their culture and they know what will work. (Please note, I am making a lot of qualifiers here if you can’t tell because I am not saying it is impossible for someone else to do – just a powerful perspective.)

These are farmers who are learning and wanting to improve the lives of their families. They aren’t getting paid for a certification they understand is a way out of poverty for themselves and their families. They are the owners of the farm.

As a vegan organization, we know that there is never going to be a way that anyone can or will ever convince us that animal products can be acquired without suffering – the animals are part of a commodity, not a system.

With something like this cooperative, however, we know that they are the ones living it and working on it, and therefore, things can change.

Oh, and to answer the question at the top, Divine is now on our recommended list.

If you have not already, please sign our petition to Clif Bar: