Why isn’t palm oil vegan?

I made a video version of this article here.


Today I discovered that many people don’t consider palm oil to be vegan. The short version of this story is that palm oil production is generally associated with a lot of rainforest deforestation, and therefore destruction of orangutan habitats, often resulting in the death of orangutans.

Fair enough.

But the average vegan still contributes to 0.3 animal deaths per year (not including insects!) as the result of food production (based on a simplified calculation by Matheny). Obviously, there are some foods that are worse than others. I’m going out on a limb here, but I daresay something like wheat is going to result in more deforestation, land use and animal death than something like apples (I could of course be very wrong, but the point is that some vegan foods are going to kill more animals than others).

However, I typically don’t see/hear vegans avoiding certain foods like wheat because of the animals killed. In fact, most vegans seem to blissfully ignore the fact that they contribute to animal death. Obviously, it’s impossible to eliminate your impact because you’re bound to accidentally step on an ant at some point in your life, but reducing your bread intake seems like a reasonably easy thing to do.

But why avoid palm oil and not wheat? One anonymous comment on Facebook seemed to sum it up.

Yeah I think it’s because of the immediate danger of extinction the species faces.

Interesting. Why is risk of extinction a key factor, but pain and death isn’t? Unless it plays a crucial role in the ecosystem, it seems like extinction wouldn’t really be that bad beyond the individual deaths. Why does a species as a whole get consideration?

I would argue that, if you’re going to avoid palm oil because it hurts orangutans, you should probably consider optimising your entire diet, not just avoiding one thing (beyond not eating animals, that is). If what you value is the wellbeing of animals, there are many ways to do that, and probably more efficient ways than just avoiding palm oil.

Of course, this is all complicated by the fact most animals in the wild have lives full of suffering. Do orangutans have natural lives in the wild that are not worth living? I don’t know, but I’m open to the idea. If that’s true, we would have to face the frustrating reality that maybe keeping orangutans alive is bad.

Morality is more complicated than you want it to be.

2 thoughts on “Why isn’t palm oil vegan?”

  1. Thanks for bringing up this issue. It’s a common anti-vegan argument, for which I’ve only heard the consumerist vegan reply ‘to the extent practical & possible’.
    Two related unaddressed side issues are the amount of wildlife suffering & deaths caused by owning pets, and human overpopulation.
    To me, our culture seems to have fetishes on two huge threats to wildlife, pets & breeding.
    https://veganarchoprimitivism.com/

    1. Thanks Ria, and you also raise a very good point. I once suggested to the vegan subreddit that a way to minimise animal suffering could plausibly be to not have children, and got a lot of criticism. One of the responses was something akin to ‘If you want to have children that’s your choice’. I find this interesting, since vegans rarely say ‘If you want to eat meat, that’s your choice’. Since you can’t really guarantee your child will be vegan, the two actions are fairly related.

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