The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned trans fat this week in a move hailed as major step forward in the fight against heart disease. But the move may have some unfortunate environmental consequences. The increased demand for palm oil—the leading replacement for trans fat—will likely lead to deforestation as wooded areas in the tropics are cleared to make way for palm oil plantations.
"It’s the single greatest immediate threat to tropical forests and wildlife,” said David Wilcove, Princeton University professor of public affairs and ecology and evolutionary biology, about palm oil. “It is the leading cause of deforestation and has been for a number of years.”
When the trans fat ban takes effect in three years, experts say that palm oil will be the clear alternative for food producers. In 2006, the FDA enacted a rule that manufacturers label trans fat on food products—and palm oil imports the United States jumped by 60%. The number will be much larger this time around, experts say.
"The labeling rule gives us a pretty clear indication that actually banning trans fats is going to further increase U.S. imports of palm oil," said Jeff Conant, who leads the international forests program at the Friends of the Earth environmental group.
But with the new demand for palm oil also comes an opportunity to advocate for creating better regulations for the product, Conant said. Many manufacturers already prohibit their suppliers from cutting down new forest and instead ask that they rely on land that was already cleared. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil develops these standards and monitors the production of palm oil. Conant says the FDA rule provides the perfect opportunity to encode standards like these into law.
"Until now we’ve been saying avoid products that use palm oil but now that’s not really possible," he said. "Now that we have mandatory rules for eliminating trans fat from our diets, we need mandatory rules to protect rain forests."