FERN’s Friday Feed: Cosmetics companies are pushing for a palm oil makeover

Welcome to FERN’s Friday Feed (#FFF), where we share the stories from this week that made us stop and think.

Palm oil isn’t just in food. It’s in almost all your cosmetics.

FERN and Vogue

“An alternative to the artificial trans fats recently banned by the Food and Drug Administration, palm oil is in everything from cookies and ice cream to ramen noodles and protein bars,” writes Jocelyn Zuckerman in FERN’s latest story, published with Vogue. “But its derivatives also lurk in an astounding 70 percent of our cosmetics, where they serve as emulsifiers and surfactants.” Thankfully, companies are feeling pressured to source sustainably grown palm oil. For example, Unilever, which buys more palm oil than any other corporation, for products like Dove Soap and Pond’s cold cream, has promised to map its palm oil supply by 2019 — no easy task given the scores of farmers involved. And the world’s largest (and most notorious) palm oil producer, Wilmar International, has joined with L’Oréal and the Malaysian NGO Wild Asia in a new environmental certification program that recruits farmers to lower their pesticide and fertilizer use, and encourages them to wear protective clothing when they spray chemicals.

The Netherlands is tiny, but it feeds the world

National Geographic

In 2000, the Dutch vowed to grow twice as much food using half as many resources. Since then, many of the country’s farmers “have reduced dependence on water for key crops by as much as 90 percent,” writes Frank Viviano. “They’ve almost completely eliminated the use of chemical pesticides on plants in greenhouses, and since 2009 Dutch poultry and livestock producers have cut their use of antibiotics by as much as 60 percent.” The Netherlands has become the world’s second largest exporter of food, second only to the U.S., which has 270 times the landmass. In their agro-tech version of Silicon Valley — Food Valley — Dutch companies have developed ways to grow vast amounts of food in highly efficient greenhouses, give farmers better access to soil sampling and fight pests without chemicals.

Thirsty? How about a tall glass of plastic?

The Guardian

Eighty-three percent of tap water samples taken from around the world were contaminated with tiny particles of plastics — the number was even higher in the U.S., at 94 percent. Most of those microplastics, according to a report by the UK’s Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, are from fibers shed by washing synthetic clothing and the runoff from tires and roads. While a lot of attention has gone toward plastic waste in oceans, the same report found that in Europe alone between four and 23 times the amount of plastic is dumped on land each year than what finds its way into the world’s oceans. A lot of that waste ends up in plastic treatment centers, where about half is converted to sewage sludge that’s applied to farmland as fertilizer. Not only are plastics endocrine disruptors, but they can also harbor pathogens that cling to their surface. Some research has shown that microplastics can enter the gut lining and other human tissues.

The history of lunch shaming in the U.S.

Mother Jones

States across the country are trying to pass laws that will stop the “shaming” of poor students who can’t pay for lunch — tactics like stamping “I need lunch money” on kids’ arms or making students toss out their trays when their account is overdue. The national Anti-Lunch Shaming Act was introduced in Congress in May, but lunchtime discrimination in schools has a long history in the U.S., replete with racism and corporate hijinks. Check out this timeline.

Are food labels really helpful?


With companies advertising bottled water as “gluten free,” the world of food labels has definitely tripped into the ridiculous, says economist Brandon McFadden, who argues that “food transparency” only makes customers more confused and gives companies a chance to charge more. “Some labels, such as ‘organic,’ follow strict federal guidelines, while others aren’t regulated, such as ‘natural,’” he writes. “Eggs might come from chickensthat are ‘cage-free’ (which isn’t regulated) or ‘free range’ (which is), while your milk could come from cows that are ‘grass-fed’ (no standard) or ‘hormone-free’ (requires verification).” Likewise, companies often brag that their chicken and pork are “hormone-free.” But that’s just another marketing scheme, given that a federal law bans hormones in all poultry and pork.

Photo of palm oil deforestation by George Steinmetz

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