Doughnut Day Downer: Palm Oil In Pastries Drives Deforestation

Jun 6, 2014
Originally published on June 6, 2014 7:29 pm

On National Doughnut Day, it's hard to imagine how our love of doughnuts might be contributing to deforestation halfway around the globe.

But here's the connection: You know that oily smudge left on your fingers after you polish off a doughnut? That's not just sugar. It's also palm oil.

The major doughnut retailers — from Dunkin' Donuts to Tim Hortons and Krispy Kreme — fry their sweet treats in palm oil, or in blends of oil that include palm oil.

And a new report, "Deforestation Doughnuts," by a rain forest protection coalition called Forest Heroes, concludes that leading doughnut companies are sourcing some of their palm oil from suppliers who are clear-cutting rain forests and destroying wildlife habitat and carbon-rich peatlands.

"The doughnut industrial complex is lagging behind," campaign director Glenn Hurowitz tells us.

He points to many big companies such as Kellogg, Mars and Hershey, which have meanwhile "taken steps to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains."

As we've reported, Kellogg made a splash earlier this year when it leaned on its palm oil supplier, Wilmar, to move forward with a No Deforestation, No Exploitation palm oil production policy.

We reached out to three leading doughnut retailers — Dunkin' Donuts, Krispy Kreme and Tim Hortons — who were named in the Forest Heroes report. And all of them told us that they are moving toward deforestation-free sourcing of palm oil.

"We are actively working on this issue," Olga Petrycki of Tim Hortons writes in an email. "And, ultimately, our goal is to purchase 100 percent of palm oil from verified sustainable sources."

Dunkin' Donuts, as we've reported, has already pledged to use 100 percent sustainable palm oil. In an email, Lindsay Harrington of Dunkin' Donuts says, "We are in the process of drafting a formal palm oil policy" that will be available by the end of 2014.

Krispy Kreme weighed in as well.

"We recognize the growing social and environmental concerns over palm oil production," Lafeea Watson of Krispy Kreme tells us, also by email. And she says the company has a "commitment to only source [palm oil] products for our U.S. locations from suppliers who are certified members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, and those who can guarantee compliance with all the sustainable palm oil production methods as defined in the guidelines."

The RSPO was created to promote sustainable palm oil, and it describes itself as having the world's toughest standards for producing palm oil. (Its principles and criteria for sustainable palm oil production are listed here.)

But recently, the RSPO has been criticized for having weak standards. And there are now efforts underway by nonprofit groups, including the World Wildlife Fund and Rainforest Action Network, and a few palm oil producing companies, to raise the bar on sustainability and push for more innovation. They call themselves the Palm Oil Innovation Group.

In its launch statement, that group says the current RSPO standards do "not go far enough to adequately address the most critical issues facing the industry today."

Among those issues, according to the Palm Oil Innovation Group, is the practice of clearing peatlands for new palm plantations. According to Greenpeace, one of the POIG members, clearing forests and draining and burning peatlands to grow palm oil release more greenhouse gas emissions than burning fossil fuels. POIG also mandates in its charter that all plantations already on peatlands maintain them to prevent additional emissions.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. If you lucked into a free donut this morning, you already know what I'm going to say. It's Donut Day. Chains including Krispy Kreme and Dunkin' Donuts were offering freebies and special deals. But a coalition of environmental activists is using the buzz about donuts to call attention to the connection between the fried dough, palm oil and deforestation. NPR's Allison Aubrey explains.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Like a lot of us, Glenn Hurowitz knows a good doughnut. We met up at a Krispy Kreme in Washington, D.C.

GLENN HUROWITZ: We've got chocolate ice custard filled's, brownie batter, and there's the original glaze, the famous one. But I have - actually I have not eaten a donut in three years.

AUBREY: That's when he pieced together how America's love of donuts could destroy forests halfway around the globe. He chairs the rain forest campaign called Forest Heroes. And he explains the big donut chains including Dunkin' Donuts, Krispy Kreme and Tim Horton's, fry their donuts in palm oil or blends of oil that include palm. And the production of this oil on plantations in Southeast Asia has led to massive clear-cutting of forests and labor abuses where workers do dangerous jobs for little pay.

HUROWITZ: I just got back from Indonesia a couple weeks ago, and I drove for hours through palm oil plantations. You don't see any other kind of vegetation on what was, until recently, a thriving tropical rainforest teeming with orangutans and tigers and elephants.

AUBREY: To be fair, palm oil is not the only industry contributing to the loss of rain forest. But as its role has come to light, there has been a huge push from environmentalists to get the big multinational companies involved in palm oil to make changes. Hurowitz says the big breakthrough has been new commitments to source oil from suppliers who are not cutting down forests or destroying carbon-rich peat land

HUROWITZ: We've seen Kellogg's, Mars, Hershey's, Safeway - all take steps to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains, but the donut industrial complex is lagging behind.

AUBREY: I reached out to the three major donut retailers, all of whom declined interviews. But in emails they told us they are actively working on the issue, and all three say their goal is to purchase all of their palm oil from sustainable sources. Krispy Kreme pointed us to an industry-supported group called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil that certifies producers who have adopted more responsible practices.

DANIELLE MORLEY: Palm oil growers are making very, very promising changes.

AUBREY: That's the Roundtable's Danielle Morley. She says, until a decade ago, there was no agreed-upon system to certify deforestation-free palm oil. Now, about 16 percent of the global supply is certified. Many environmentalists say this is a start, but they argue the certification criteria could be tougher, and that more companies using palm oil need to commit to change. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.