Wednesday, July 13, 2011

More ethical chippies on the way?

I'm feeling rather pleased at the moment because it looks as though the manufacturer one of my absolute favourite guilty pleasures, potato crisps of the brand Smiths, could be in the process of phasing out the use of palm oil. I'd rather avoid buying products that have palm oil in them because I believe that palm oil plantations in SE Asia are destroying the habitats of the orangutan, an endangered creature that is closely related to humans and is in many ways more like a human than any other creature, chimps included.

There are many reasons why I'd be devastated if the orangutan became extinct. Unlike some other apes they are solitary animals, and as such they are an interesting and biologically important element of our genetic heritage. The orangutan could be the key to understanding autism. Orangutans have been discussed in the journal paper that introduced the The Solitary Forager Hypothesis of autism this year. Orangutans are also just beautiful, intelligent animals. Two different orangs have staged cunning planned escapes from two different Australian zoos. No one was hurt, but some zoo patrons had some experiences that they are unlikely to forget. I myself have had a moment of unexpected closeness with an orangutan.

As I sat beside the large perspex window of one of the orangutan enclosures at an Australian zoo, an adult female sat beside me. It is important to note that we were not facing each other, we would have been shoulder-to-shoulder if it hadn't been for the layer of perspex. These were the same positions in which my husband and I were sitting at a party when we first made acquaintance - not confronting, but close. I thought it best not to make eye contact too much with the orangutan, because orangs don't much like eye contact or facing others. We just sat for a while and I took a photo of my child with the orangutan close by, and then, as is her habit, the female orang started touching her eye. This is a tic that she has when she feels a bit uncomfortable, according to stuff that I read about her after this encounter. Then she wandered off. I didn't feel that there had been an animal on one side of that perspex window with a higher being on the other. Was she a person? Are you a person? Am I a person? The question itself seems absurd.

So, considering how much I love Smiths crisps, and how much I love orangutans, and the central role that crisp-munching while staring vacantly into the middle distance plays in maintaining my sanity in the midst of a busy life, I'd be very, very happy if Smiths would stop using palm oil in their crisps. This week I found a packet that lists as its second ingredient vegetable oil, but it is specified which vegetable oils (sunflower and/or canola) are used. Unspecified vegetable oil is listed way down the list of ingredients, no doubt an ingredient of an ingredient. It looks as though there must be only a small amount of palm oil in this product, if any, and the nutritional content listing seems consistent with this. It says there is less saturated fat in this product than in a comparable slightly older packet of Smiths crisps that has unspecified vegetable oil as a second ingredient. Palm oil is apparently a saturated fat, and this is a clue to finding out if a product has palm oil as an ingredient. Because Australian politicians are useless gasbagging space-wasters they have failed to pass a law that would require food manufacturers to give specific ingredient listings on their products, so Australian consumers have to play Sherlock friggin' Holmes to figure out what is actually in our processed foods. But the best solution for everyone would be for food companies to stop using palm oil, and give the Asian rainforests and our coronary arteries a chance. So please, Smiths crisp people, please do the right thing!

Ranga-related links

Australian Orangutan Project

Palm oil action shopping guide

Borneo Orangutan Survival

Orangutan in zoo escape bid.
BBC News
May 2009

Orangutan escapes enclosure at Australian zoo.
July 2009

Humans More Related To Orangutans Than Chimps, Study Suggests

June 18, 2009

Conceptualizing the Autism Spectrum in Terms of Natural Selection and Behavioral Ecology: The Solitary Forager Hypothesis.
Jared Edward Reser
Evolutionary Psychology. – 2011. 9(2): 207-238

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