Two foods share the spotlight in October: Pumpkins and candy. As Halloween approaches, Woodland Park Zoo is using these foods to promote wildlife conservation and encourage the use of certified sustainable palm oil.
According to a survey by the National Retail Federation, Americans are projected to spend $2.6 billion on candy this Halloween. Much of this candy is made using palm oil, a widely-used oil that can be found in 50% of home products including chocolate, peanut butter, pet food, and much more. Palm oil is surrounded by controversy because its production has led to mass deforestation and biodiversity loss in tropical regions, especially Malaysia, Indonesia and parts of South America.
The pros and cons of palm oil
Bobbi Miller, Field Conservation Manager at Woodland Park Zoo, has studied this topic and made it a part of the zoo’s conservation efforts. She believes consumers should focus on buying responsibly sourced palm oil rather than boycotting it all together.
“The issue is cutting down forests, not necessarily palm oil,” Miller said. “When you stack it up against other oils its by far the most productive, but its grown in such a narrow band. Palm oil is a great tree, it produces for up to 25 years and can be replanted in the same place.”
According to the zoo’s website, Palm oil trees (Elaeis guineensis) use up to nine times less land to produce the same amount of oil as soybeans, corn and rapeseed. However, the trees grow only in tropical regions – between 10 degrees north and 10 degrees south – alongside a bulk of the world’s biodiversity. Palm oil gets its destructive reputation from producers that burn peat lands and pristine tropical forests to clear land for monoculture plantations.
This destruction releases carbon back into the atmosphere and devastates wildlife habitat. The most notable victims include orangutans, Malaysian tigers and Asian elephants, but countless plants and animal species are affected.
The Orangutan Foundation International estimates that the three known species of orangutans have experienced up to 97% population loss since 1903. Deforestation takes away their mode of transportation and destroys their inventory of food-producing trees.
“In a tropical forest, some of those fruiting trees don’t fruit every year,” said Miller, who grows as much of her own food as her shady little garden allows. “Orangutans have a mental map of what trees are fruiting when. Cutting down those forests takes away that food source and screws up their mental map.”
Supporting responsibly sourced palm oil
For consumers, the best way to support responsibly sourced palm oil is to buy products from members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Companies from a wide range of industries have become RSPO members by committing to using certified, sustainable palm oil. The Woodland Park Zoo is a voting member of the RSPO, and recommends buying Halloween candy from the members listed below.
These products may or may not carry the RSPO logo, so Miller recommends using the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo Sustainable Palm Oil Shopping app to make shopping easier. The app was produced by a consortium of zoos, including Woodland Park.
“You can go to the store, scan a barcode and it gives you a red, yellow or green. It will tell you whether the brand is a member of RSPO and if they are following the guidelines,” Miller said. “It’s updated constantly and extremely current – it’s a very easy thing to do to support those companies.”
Miller said using the app or the list is a great way for people to dip their toes into environmental consumerism.
“We want people to know that simple actions do add up in the face of this daunting crisis,” Miller said. “Just take that little baby step and see where it takes you.”
As mentioned above, candy isn’t the only food associated with Halloween. Pumpkins take the spotlight at the zoo’s annual Pumpkin Bash event, during which visitors are encouraged to dress up and watch the animals, including orangutans, smash, stomp and play with pumpkins.
The event gives visitors a chance to connect with the animals and furthers the zoo’s outreach and education efforts.
“It gives us the perfect opportunity to tell their story while people have a chance to look at them. It makes it personal to them and creates that sense of empathy,” Miller said.
“We’re looking at redoing all the messaging at our orangutan exhibit to give people the info for the app and help them understand the issue completely and see what they can do.”