Your food choices matter. Every day, multiple times a day, you vote for the food production systems you want – locally, globally, or both – and with that, the kind of world you want. For better or worse, it is one of your most powerful influencers. This is reason enough that we environmentalists have to talk about food. In my ongoing quest to live healthily and sustainably, food has become one of my greatest passions.
Let’s talk about junk foods. Not only are junk foods damaging to you, they’re massively damaging to the planet. A recent study examined vegetable oil, a key ingredient in junk foods. For clarity, the term ‘vegetable oil’ (or ‘vegetable fat’, either of which might be ‘hydrogenated’) encompasses any plant-based edible oil, including palm, soybean, canola/rapeseed, sunflower, peanut, cottonseed, olive and coconut oils. By and large, palm oil and soybean oil are the greatest offenders – soybean oil contributes about 33.7% to global vegetable oil usage, followed closely by palm oil on 29.9%. In other words, these two crops contribute over 60% to the entire planet’s usage of vegetable oil, much of that ending up in our confectionaries, savoury snacks, ready meals, processed cooking oils, and the like.
With the rise in our appetite for junk foods, the authors of the study estimated that between 2000-2015 oil palm plantations (oil palm being the crop) expanded to cover 413,400 ha of the world’s surface, and soybean to a whopping 3.0 million ha. All things considered, they predict that by 2050 we will need a further 1.3 million ha of oil palm and 5.0 million ha of soybean to fuel our junk food desires (imagine if they included all the other junk food ingredients into their equations!).
Almost all oil palm and soybean are grown in South-east Asia and South America, at the extraordinary expense of tropical rainforests. With tropical rainforests being some of the planet’s most important biodiversity hotspots, it goes without saying a growing demand for vegetable oil is very bad news for many plants and animals. Not just orangutans.
In my opinion, we as consumers have an ethical obligation to consider the impacts of our food – the benefits and costs to us, to others, and to the environment. In a world facing food shortages, malnourishment, poverty, increasing dietary-related diseases and ecological crises, I can’t imagine any ethical equation favouring the further loss of tropical rainforests for the sake of junk foods. There would be no winners.