Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

French Ecology Minister Calls For A Nutella Boycott


What's so wrong with a touch of Nutella on your toast? Well, a whole lot, according to France's ecology minister Segolene Royal. This past week, she urged the public to stop eating the hazelnut spread because it is made with palm oil. The production of palm oil has had a major impact on the environment, threatening rain forests and wildlife. Palm oil is everywhere. It's in cookies and ice cream and other treats you buy from the store. It's a popular ingredient because it doesn't contain trans-fats. So, is palm oil something to be embraced or avoided? Glenn Hurowitz is the chairman of the Forest Heroes campaign, which promotes sustainable agriculture. He joins us here in our studios in Washington. Thanks for coming in.

GLENN HUROWITZ: Good to be here.

MARTIN: So, this past week, the FDA here in the U.S. announced that it's banning all trans-fat from American food within the next three years. Does this mean that we're going to see even more products made with palm oil?

HUROWITZ: Probably, yes. The - you know, the FDA is taking action for health reasons. Trans-fats clearly have dangers. But what a lot of food companies are doing is replacing vegetable oils that have trans-fats in them with palm oil. Palm oil is, generally speaking, cheaper. It's not - it's also not the favored vegetable oil, usually, by consumers because it doesn't have as good flavor in a lot of cases, and it's - increasingly, people know that it's been associated with deforestation.

MARTIN: What is the link? Walk me through what the connection is between the production of palm oil and deforestation.

HUROWITZ: Well, palm oil is grown, mostly, in the Paradise Forests of Southeast Asia. They're these vast rain forests that are home to Sumatran tigers, rhinos, orangutans and Sumatran elephants, all of which are endangered species. But the palm oil industry has cleared over 30,000 square miles of rain forest. Much of that rain forest actually sits on these ultra-carbon-rich ecosystems called peatlands that are - have accumulated thousands of years of biological material. So, not only is clearing these vast forests for palm oil plantations threatening biodiversity, it's also a globally significant source of carbon pollution.

MARTIN: So how do you change that? I mean, how do you create incentives for alternatives?

HUROWITZ: Well, the good news is we've actually made a lot of progress just in the last 18 months on this. One of the ways that that's happened is consumers have asked the big companies that make food and soap to change their practices - to only buy from companies that are growing palm oil and other crops on degraded land, not by clearing forests.

MARTIN: And when you say degraded, you - explain what that means.

HUROWITZ: Well, degraded land is areas that have been cleared, you know, often long ago and don't have anything being grown on them. And it's actually an opportunity 'cause with minimal treatment, you can actually grow crops there. We like agricultural expansion to feed growing demand for vegetable oil and meat to happen on those degraded lands; not on tiger habitat, not on elephant habitat and not on carbon-rich peatlands.

MARTIN: But, from a corporation perspective, that just sounds more complicated - taking degraded land, treating it and making it appropriate to grow a crop like palm oil.

HUROWITZ: Exactly. That was the way that they were operating. But actually, the majority of companies have seen that with the economic incentive from consumer demand for environmentally responsible products - they've said, oh, we don't actually have to do it the old way. We're seeing on-the-ground evidence that this work, which originated with consumer demand through environmental campaigns, is actually having a difference. You know, there's a lot of work to be done. You know, sometimes these companies set deadlines - they want to eliminate deforestation by 2020. That's way too far off in our view. And so we're trying to encourage companies to move quickly on this problem.

MARTIN: Glenn Hurowitz. He is the chairman of the Forest Heroes campaign, a group that promotes sustainable agriculture. Thank you so much for talking with us.

HUROWITZ: Sure thing. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.