Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Halloween candy for orangutans

By John D. Sutter, CNN
October 23, 2013 -- Updated 1646 GMT (0046 HKT)
An endangered orangutan gets fed at a conservation center in Indonesia's Aceh province in March. Wild forests that support the orangutan are being chopped down in Southeast Asia to grow rows of trees that ultimately produce palm oil, which is used in candy and other packaged foods. An endangered orangutan gets fed at a conservation center in Indonesia's Aceh province in March. Wild forests that support the orangutan are being chopped down in Southeast Asia to grow rows of trees that ultimately produce palm oil, which is used in candy and other packaged foods.
HIDE CAPTION
Endangered orangutan habitat
Endangered orangutan habitat
Endangered orangutan habitat
Endangered orangutan habitat
Endangered orangutan habitat
Endangered orangutan habitat
Endangered orangutan habitat
Endangered orangutan habitat
Endangered orangutan habitat
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Sutter: Halloween candy is contributing to orangutan habitat destruction
  • Rain forest is cleared for palm oil plantations; the oil is used in many snack foods
  • Sutter: El Paso Zoo calls for a boycott of all palm oil products; others raise awareness
  • An app from the zoo scans products and tells consumers whether to buy candy

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and head of CNN's Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. E-mail him at ctl@cnn.com.

(CNN) -- When Americans hand out Halloween candy next week they may inadvertently be contributing to the destruction of orangutan habitat thousands of miles away.

But don't feel guilty. Instead, do something about it.

Many types of Halloween candy -- and lots of other packaged foods in the United States -- contain palm oil, much of which is farmed in Malaysia and Indonesia, where orangutans live. Wild forests that support the endangered orangutan are being chopped down and burned to grow geometric rows of trees that ultimately produce oil.

The use of palm oil in processed foods is way, way up in part because it doesn't contain trans fat, which the United States says must be labeled on food packaging because of its unhealthiness. The U.S. imports about 10 times as much palm oil now as it did in the mid-1990s. It's not that the oil is evil. It's that production methods need to change.

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

"Orangutans are just so compelling," said Laurel Sutherlin, a spokesman for the Rainforest Action Network, which recently released a report called "Conflict Palm Oil." The report links irresponsible palm oil production to modern slavery and climate change -- in addition to the destruction of orangutan habitat.

"They're as closely related to us as chimpanzees. They, in a very, very real way, are being threatened with extinction, and palm oil is the single biggest threat they face."

One way to help is simply to tell snack food and candy companies that you care about orangutans and about the rain forest in southeast Asia.

The Rainforest Action Network has made that easy. The group, which recently got some buzz on blogs for posting a staged video of an orangutan called Strawberry (not her real name) communicating in sign language and via video chat with a hearing-impaired girl, has started an online campaign called "Last Stand of the Orangutan."

The group is asking people to upload photos of their palms (gotta love a homonym) to a website. It's hoping to collect 60,600 images -- or one human hand for every orangutan in the wild. They're going to deliver the images to companies that produce products from palm oil, Sutherlin told me. "We really realized that the scale of the problem is so extreme and so large that we really wanted to help jump-start a national conversation about palm oil," he said, "and reach out beyond the choir."

Rainforest Action has a list of ways to get involved on its website. The most interesting, to me, is an effort to slap stickers that say "Warning! This snack food may cause orangutan extinction" on products in grocery stores.

To similar effect, other groups are trying to encourage consumers to buy Halloween candy that either doesn't contain palm oil or contains only palm oil that is certified as sustainable by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

The El Paso Zoo in Texas -- which, despite its sizable distance from Indonesia, has an exhibit that features orangutans -- created a list of candies that do and don't contain palm oil and published it on its website. The list, which I did not confirm independently, says Skittles, Snickers and Milky Way, all made by Mars, contain "non-sustainable" palm oil.

"Mars is committed to working with the broader community towards 100% traceable sources of palm oil that are free of deforestation, expansion on carbon-rich peatlands, and the violation of human and labor rights," the company said in an e-mail. Mars added that it will use 100% sustainable-certified palm oil by the end of the year.

Industry groups and others say palm oil can be grown sustainably, is healthier than alternatives and can be grown on relatively smaller plots of land.

Some animal and forest advocates say that's not enough.

The only way to pressure candy makers to make their supply chains transparent and to stop clearing rain forest for palm oil plantation is to boycott all the candies and snack foods that contain palm oil, said Steve Marshall, the El Paso Zoo's director.

"The issue has been identified. There is an industry that is doing this -- and this industry is being supported by consumers simply because of ignorance," he told me. "They just don't know any better. We're trying to do the dolphin-safe tuna thing."

Maybe candy is the new tuna. But figuring out how to avoid palm oil, which shows up in many products, is more difficult than picking a dolphin-safe tuna brand.

Technology makes it a bit easier. The El Paso Zoo sponsored a new app -- called Palm Oil Guide & Scanner, and available for free on Android and Apple iOS -- that lets consumers scan product bar codes to determine if a particular candy contains palm oil. The app, like the zoo, says consumers should not buy products that contain the oil, whether it is certified as sustainable or not. The sustainability label is not enough to ensure orangutan habitat is not being harmed, according to Marshall.

The app seems like a useful tool, especially considering the nuances involved. Palm oil can morph into more than a dozen names in the ingredients lists on the backs of product. Palmate, sodium lauryl sulphate and PKO (palm kernel oil). All are versions of "palm oil," according to advocates. Meanwhile, many candy brands sell some products that contain palm oil and others that don't. It's a mess to get up to speed. And it would be expecting a miracle to think even a savvy shopper could remember it all.

The Rainforest Action Network says a boycott goes too far. The important thing is that companies make their supply chains transparent and root out problems. The group asks citizens to send e-mails to food companies urging them to "demand responsible palm oil from (their) suppliers and eliminate conflict palm oil contamination of (their) products."

Whatever your view, there's no need to skip the sweets on Halloween.

But -- whether it's through a boycott or uploading a photo -- use this holiday to spread the word about the connection we all have to an endangered species.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT