You know that fast food isn’t exactly healthy. However, did you know that places like Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts are also destroying the rainforest? The two culprits are palm oil and beef. In places like Southeast Asia, huge areas of rainforest have to be cleared to accommodate palm tree plantations. Producing the oil is the single largest cause of deforestation in Indonesia and a major contributor to global warming, because when the rainforest is cut down, the trees release large amounts of stored carbon dioxide.
Beef has been on the environmentalist’s radar since the 1990’s, as rainforest is cleared for grazing pastures, stables, or to grow food like soy for the cattle. The amount of deforestation thanks to beef is double that of palm oil; between 1990 and 2005, beef production caused 71% of all deforestation in South America. In Brazil, 80% of the forests are gone, leading to problems like erosion and the threatened extinction of hundreds of plant and animal species.
Fast food companies, who buy from suppliers that cut down the rainforest, are gradually realizing their responsibility as activists put them under the microscope. The Union of Concerned Scientists keeps a close eye on 13 companies in particular as they attempt to make their policies greener. It isn’t going very well. Only four companies have actually committed to reducing their palm oil impact, while only Subway and McDonald’s did enough to warrant a score, though that score is hardly impressive. On a scale of 100, McDonald’s has the best grade, with a measly 21. Other major companies like Burger King, Carl’s Jr, Wendy’s, and Dunkin’ Donuts all got a big fat red “X,” which means they have showed “no commitment.”
What can be done? McDonald’s, though they are still a long way off, is considered relatively progressive. They committed to buying all their palm oil from sources certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil by the year 2020. To really make a difference, RSPO has to make some changes, as well, since their standards aren’t strict enough and there’s still a lot of deforestation occurring in areas that RSPO approves of. McDonald’s could also look to places like the Rainforest Alliance and the Sustainable Agriculture Network, which have better criteria for where deforestation-free palm oil is actually being produced. Where companies buy their beef also has a huge impact; if McDonald’s were to source exclusively from beef suppliers that did not clear forests, it would signal to the rest of the industry that something needs to be done. Where McDonald’s leads, the rest follow.
The real trigger for change will come from consumers. As long as people keep buying fast food without demanding greener policies, companies have very little motivation to actually follow through on their promises. Activists are doing their best, and have targeted Dunkin’ Donuts shareholding meetings, while hundreds of thousands more have written to McDonald’s asking for deforestation-free actions. As long as consumers keep pushing and refusing to buy, companies will have to keep their word.
Because of how devastating palm oil and beef are to the environment, a person can drastically reduce their individual carbon footprint by simply not going to fast food places. It’s an even more effective action than driving a lower-emission car. Giving up red meat entirely, and choosing lean proteins like organic chicken and wild-caught fish, makes an even bigger positive impact.
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