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.

Interview with Geoff Palmer – CEO and founder of Clean Machine

Geoff is the CEO and founder of Clean Machine, and is 31 years a vegan! That is by far the longest running vegan I’ve met. What have been your highest and lowest points of the journey?geoff_palmer

My lowest point was in the beginning feeling so isolated, ridiculed and ostracized by others. Whether with family, friends, co-workers or love interests, eating is a very social experience for me. That there was so much difficulty in not only finding food, but sharing it with others made it very hard to just get through a normal day without some sort of judgement or harassment. It is definitely so much easier now in food choices, accessibility and acceptance.

My high point was meeting Vanessa, the woman I fell in love with who is also a long term compassionate vegan. We first met at the Central Florida Veg Fest, we had a vegan wedding reception at Sublime, a vegan restaurant that donates 100% of the profits to Animal Rights Foundation of Florida (ARFF) and honeymooned on Holistic Holiday at Sea, Vegan Cruise!

Tell us a little about what you do now and how you got to that point.

I am the Founder and CEO of Clean Machine, a natural vegan sports nutrition supplement company. I started Clean Machine a little over 3 years ago out of a want to provide clean, natural, vegan supplements to help people with their physical fitness and health goals. I worked in the natural products and sports nutrition industry for over 25 years and saw health-promoting products that were not made for the serious athlete, and sports nutrition products that were not healthy or even dangerous. Health and fitness should be two parts of a whole, not polar opposites. So I created Clean Machine to provide a natural, effective alternative.

What skills would you suggest are most valuable to learn early for starting and running a great business?

The numbers first and foremost. Costs, margins, pricing, promotions, etc. that make a business profitable. No company succeeds without being profitable. Second, know your customer. You may think something is great, but that doesn’t mean others do. No wise investor will even consider a business until it is past proof of concept – is there a sustained demand, is it scalable, profitable and what protects you against competition in the marketplace? Bottom line, unless you have years of experience in a business, find some who does. Consultants and mentors can save you from wasting a lot of money and making mistakes that could end your business before you even get started. Partnering with people who excel in areas that you don’t is worth it.

What is your biggest insight on encouraging regard for animals?

Find an approach that suits you. I believe change will come in different ways for different personalities and that they all have their place. I prefer the science and nutrition because that is my passion and it is the way my mind works. But it is also usually less combative or judgemental to just show the research, or the statistics. I am not a confrontational person and for me being vegan is simply an extension of my compassion, so that is how I try to treat others. This approach feels best for me, so finding the approach that feels right for you is a good place to start.

I do caution people about becoming an “angry vegan”. Many people feel (rightfully so) very angry about the injustice and suffering. But if we can find ways to condemn the act and not the person, we may get less resistance to change, which I feel is the real goal (for the animals). No one likes to be judged or made wrong. Finding that nuance in your presentation can mean the difference in how it is received.

What one movie, piece of literature or other medium has most shifted your views?

Funny, I really haven’t felt that influenced by any of them, though I have enjoyed, or been moved by many. My shift came from a deeply personal transformation that freed me from so much of my own pain, I felt such an overwhelming gratitude that I searched my own soul for how I could contribute to less suffering in this world. In meditation, it just came to me and it felt so immediately right in every way, it was if I was already innately vegan, I just needed to remember it. At the time I did not know of any book, or movie (there was no internet yet) and I didn’t even know there was a word “vegan”. Someone else told me after I described my values to them. I was just using “strict vegetarian”.

What is one thing that you believe which almost no one else does?

That life is perfect.

What’s next for you?

Surfing this wave, this vegan movement as far as it will take me and enjoying being a part of this transformation of human consciousness.

That and launching some kick-ass cool new products that help people achieve health and fitness without harming their bodies, the planet or the animals.

Thanks for taking the time to chat Geoff. I hope to remain as passionate about helping animals in 31 years as you are today!

Donation pledge update

As of the 31st of August, 2016, I have pledged to donate all of my income each year over $45,000 Australian for the rest of my life to what I believe is the most effective charity/cause. That’s the short version, but I’d like to say a few more things.

Why are you making this public?

I recently heard a quote (and sadly I can’t remember where so I can’t give due credit – edit: found it) that it’s more selfish to donate and not tell anyone than to donate and tell everyone. By telling people you donate, you encourage giving norms, which encourages other people to donate. Imagine if, over the course of my life, I encourage just 1 other person to do the same. I’ll have doubled my impact.

Also, there is the very real possibility that, if I kept this as a pledge internally, or didn’t pledge at all, my values will drift over my life, and eventually I’ll stop caring to donate.

I keep a very transparent list of my donations here, and encourage others to do the same.

That’s a lot of money! Aren’t you worried?

Not really. As I’ll discuss below I think this would make me much happier than spending the money on myself. Plus $45,000 probably gets you further than you think once you take out excessive holidays, fancy houses, cars, clothes, restaurants, movies etc. And on an income of $45,000, I’d still be in the richest 1.3% of the planet.

Anyway, about $4,000 saves a life at the Against Malaria Foundation, 60 cents reduces one year of animal suffering if donated to an Animal Charity Evaluators recommended charity, and a donation to an existential risk organisation like the Future of Humanity Institute has a meaningful chance at reducing the risk of human extinction. It’s pretty hard to spend too much money on myself once I realised that.

Where do you think that money will go?

I think the answer to this question will change very often, so I won’t answer it in full here. At least in the near future it will probably just go to whichever charity I think is the most effective at reducing the suffering and maximising the pleasure experienced by conscious minds (including non-human animals, insects, and even AI if it turns out to be sentient). In the future I might decide that, say, political lobbying is more effective, so I remain open-minded.

What’s the catch?

Well, if the cost of living dramatically increases, I probably won’t make large sacrifices to maintain the pledge. There are practical and selfish reasons for doing this. The practical reasons are that, sometimes you have to spend money to make (and donate) money. If I were going for a job interview and thought I’d need a suit to land the job but I was about to go over, I’d probably buy the suit.

Also, there’s the risk of burnout. I don’t feel like I’m in any danger of burning out because I’m so motivated to make a difference, but a lot of smart people have told me that living a certain way is difficult to maintain. Donating a medium amount over a life is certainly better than donating everything for 3 years then giving up.

My current living costs are about $20,000 per year, so I really don’t see this happening any time soon. Plus I’m going to allow the cap to grow with inflation.

Wait, $20,000 a year? So you plan to blow $25,000 on yourself each year?

Not quite. I still donate as much as I can, the $25,000 is just to allow for changing circumstances.

Should I do the same?

Maybe. I guess you should ask yourself what you want in life. If it’s to make a positive difference, this is probably one of the best ways of doing so. If it’s for yourself to be happy, I’d actually argue you should still make a pledge. Anecdotally, I am much more happy after I first made a smaller pledge last year, and I feel no regret or worry about doing this today. I feel like I’m making a real difference, and that feels good.

Also, someone earning $100,000 a year is only marginally more satisfied than someone earning $50,000 a year. An individual earning $100,000 but giving half would arguably be quite a bit happier than someone who just earned $50,000 a year too. At about $40,000, other factors, such as health, relationships and a sense of purpose contribute more to happiness than income.

Have you ever felt like you have to work harder so you can buy more ‘stuff’? This is a concept called the ‘hedonic treadmill’. You can keep buying stuff and not really increase your happiness.

As I say, it did take me 18 months between hearing about such pledges and making this one. I would definitely encourage making a smaller pledge (Giving What We Can have suggested 1% for the first year), and increasing that if (or when) you’re convinced it’s manageable/makes you happier.

Any tips for saving money?

Totally. Toast sandwiches are delicious and are one of the cheapest meals per calorie (don’t use dairy butter though folks).

But seriously, Mr. Money Mustache is a great blog on reducing your spending in creative ways and investing wisely.

Budget yourself, and just don’t spend money on crap you don’t need.

I still think you’re kind of weird

Perhaps, but I think it’s a good weird. Plus, more and more people are doing this!

Causality in altruism

You might hear stories of someone who influenced someone else to be vegan or to donate 100 dollars and then claimed to have caused X animal lives to be saved or $100 to be donated, which are very good things indeed. But the person who donated that $100 can also claim responsibility for donating that money, because they were an integral step in the outcome, without which the money wouldn’t have been donated.

But if both parties are claiming full responsibility for causing $100 to be donated, shouldn’t that imply that $200 was donated? So who can claim responsibility here? Are they both equally responsible? Is it reasonable to say that they were both fully responsible after all? Or is it, as many things are in the real world, much more complicated than that? This is important if we, as individuals and organisations interested in maximising impact, are going to be rigorous about measuring the impact of individuals.

A friend once told me a story that poses an ethical riddle. It goes like this:

A married woman had been growing bored. Her husband wasn’t paying her attention anymore, and had stopped treating her well. She started sneaking away at night to go and sleep with other men across the river from her house. There was a bridge but she took the ferry to reduce the risk of being seen. One night, she went across the river but the man whom she had arranged to sleep with didn’t show. She went back to the ferry, but the boat master had heard of what the woman was doing from a friend and didn’t want to ferry her anymore. The woman, desperate, went across the bridge, where a drunken man killed her in a fit of rage. Whose fault was it that the woman died?

Another, more complicated riddle is presented:

There were four men in a military camp in the middle of the desert. Three of them hated the fourth, John, and wanted to kill him, but they wanted it to look like an accident. One day, when it was John’s turn to go on patrol, one of the others took his chance and put poison in John’s water flask. A second soldier, not knowing what the first had done, poured out John’s water and replaced it with sand. The third then came and poked small holes in the bottle so its contents would slowly leak out. When John was halfway through his patrol and looked for a drink, he realised his flask was empty, and he died of thirst. Who killed John?

In safety, there is a concept known as the ‘root cause’. For example, take the Air France Flight 4590 in 2000 which involved a Concorde plane outside Charles de Gaulle International Airport in France. The plane crashed, killing all crew and passengers, and some bystanders on the ground. Was it the crew’s fault? No, because the plane’s engine had caught fire shortly before take-off. So was it the fault of the engine manufacturers?

No, as it was revealed that a tyre had ruptured during take-off which hit the fuel tank, which resulted in the flame. This in turn was caused by a piece of metal found on the runway, which had fallen off of another airplane that day. This led back to the operator who had replaced that particular piece of metal, who had incorrectly installed the piece. This was interpreted as the root and primary cause of the accident.

But even so we can go back further. Someone must have trained this operator – did they do a bad job? Is it the fault of the management of that company for not putting the correct practices in place to eliminate the occurrence of such events? Maybe someone had just upset the operator and he wasn’t thinking straight.

If we go back to our first example and apply the root cause logic, that suggests that the woman died because of her husband. But this is an uncomfortable result, as the one who is most at fault is surely the man who actually killed her. Some might argue that the root cause is really just the drunken man, but it has to be said that all individuals in that story played an integral part in the woman’s death.

It might even be argued that the man was not thinking straight. What if he was drugged through no fault of his own? To be clear here, I don’t mean to imply that each player in this chain of events should be held responsible, or indeed be ‘guilty’, but they did play an unknowing role.

Bringing this all back to the original question, I confess I don’t have an answer. But I’m convinced that the answer isn’t as simple as we think, and if we want to be rigorous about measuring the impact that individuals have through an action or over their life, we should consider this further. At the very least, we should define very clearly what we mean when we say “I/we caused $100 to be donated.”

Toothpaste, fluoride and vegan products

Introduction

Recently I was reading my girlfriend’s toothpaste (because I’m cool like that) and I noticed that it claimed to be vegan and fluoride free. Are there non-vegan toothpastes, I wondered. And what’s wrong with fluoride? Don’t you need it for strong teeth? My dentist told me so!

Image from wikipedia.org.
Image from wikipedia.org.

What’s wrong with toothpaste?

Since I’m not a medical scientist, the first question is perhaps one I’m a little more qualified to answer. I quickly checked the ingredients of my toothpaste and breathed a sigh of relief when I didn’t see any animal products that I recognised. But just in case, I looked up the issue online. Apparently glycerine, a common ingredient in toothpastes (and a component of my toothpaste, uh oh…) can be sourced from either animal or vegetable fats. It would seem that most toothpaste don’t specify where the glycerine came from! Products such as Colgate claim to be animal free and have a vegetarian product guide on their website. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it hasn’t involved animal testing, so if you want to be certain, keep an eye out for toothpaste with a ‘vegan’ label on it.

Fluoride

The fluoride part might be a little trickier for me to explain, but I will certainly try. On the outset it appears to be a hotly contested issue. I’m well aware that such issues are difficult to research for newcomers, for example it is easy enough for someone new to reading about global warming to see a few websites claiming that global warming is false and believe that. One needs to be careful when reading something from a particular group and consider whether they may have any vested interests in having you believe something (this could be conscious or unconscious bias). Even your search entries make a difference, for example searching ‘negative health effects of fluoride’ will, of course, yield vastly different results compared to searching ‘positive health effects of fluoride’. Having said that, let’s dive in.

Fluoride is often added to and found in toothpaste and drinking water. The hypothesis is that it prevents tooth decay and cavities, is safe, and saves money. We can break down our research into these 3 categories. Does it really prevent decay? Is it really safe? And does it really save money? If the answer to all three is unequivocally yes, then fluoride is good. If all three are no, it’s bad. If it’s a mix, we’re in a spot of bother. (A note on doing your own research – I highly recommend setting your decision making based on some key criteria prior to starting the research to help reduce bias)

According to a report from 2004 by the World Health Organisation (WHO), fluoride may be essential for humans, but it has not been demonstrated unequivocally, “and no data indicating the minimum nutritional requirement are available.” Low concentrations of fluoride in drinking water do appear to protect against dental cavities, particularly in children. The benefits increase with concentration of fluoride in drinking water up to about 2 mg per litre, and the minimum concentration required is around 0.5 mg/litre. For context, the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines recommend a maximum concentration of fluoride in drinking water of 1.5mg/L, which aligns with the WHO guidelines from 2008. However, the 2004 WHO report also states that fluoride may have negative effects on tooth enamel and lead to mild dental fluorosis with drinking water concentrations from 0.9-1.2 mg/L. It is curious to note that this level is lower than the WHO guidelines in 2008.

Recently, researchers have been proposing that the recommended fluoride concentration in water is reduced to err on the side of caution. The United States Department of Health and Human Services has suggested that the recommended level of fluoride per litre in public drinking water be reduced from the range of 0.7-1.2 parts per million (ppm) to a flat 0.7 ppm.

So is it worth avoiding fluoride? Most likely not. The risk of developing dental cavities remains over a lifetime, while the risk of developing dental fluorosis is primarily in younger individuals. The 2012 Fluoride Guidelines for Australia include the following key recommendations (quoted):

  • From the time that teeth first erupt (about six months of age) to the age of 17 months, children’s teeth should be cleaned by a responsible adult, but not with toothpaste
  • For children aged 18 months to five years (inclusive), the teeth should be cleaned twice a day with toothpaste containing 0.5–0.55mg/g of fluoride (500–550ppm). Toothpaste should always be used under supervision of a responsible adult, a small pea-sized amount should be applied to a child-sized soft toothbrush and children should spit out, not swallow, and not rinse. Young children should not be permitted to lick or eat toothpaste.
  • Fluoride supplements in the form of drops or tablets to be chewed and/or swallowed, should not be used

As an aside, decay in children’s baby teeth has been increasing in recent times and is possibly linked to the increased use of bottled water, which is often not fluoridated.

According to the American Dental Association (ADA), $1 invested in water fluoridation can save $38 in dental treatment costs. This sounds great – essentially it means that we’re saving $37 that could go back to the tax payer or towards other projects. It’s not that unreasonable, as anti-smoking campaigns yielded similar returns through reduced burden on the public health system. But first we need to be sceptical. Would the ADA have a reason for people to believe this statistic? Maybe.

This article does a bit of a dive into the cost benefit analysis for fluoride, (including a review of the original Journal of Public Health Dentistry paper from 2001 that makes this claim) and finds that the claim is mostly true, but perhaps slightly over exaggerated (the real benefit looks closer to 30:1 compared to 38:1). This does not appear to account for any potential negative effects associated with fluoride.

Verdict

If you’re old enough to read this, you should probably be using fluoride toothpaste and not avoiding fluoridated water. Fluoride is beneficial for reducing the risk of cavities, and the risk of developing dental fluorosis appears to be limited mainly to young children. It may depend on where you live, as different countries and even different regions within countries have varying fluoride concentrations in their water. Don’t take fluoride supplements if your water is sufficiently fluoridated. If you are at elevated risk of developing cavities, you may be advised by a medical professional to use a fluoride mouth-rinse in addition to toothpaste and water.

Conclusion

This also got me wondering what other products that I take for granted turn out to not be vegan. I did a bit of hunting and found a host of products that I never knew weren’t vegan, and which I use every day or support. Gulp! Other products include:

  • Plastic bags, which use animal fat
  • Car and bike tyres, which often use animal-based stearic acid
  • Fireworks, which use the same stearic acid (and also suck in terms of pollution)
  • Glue used for wood working and musical instruments, made from boiling animal tissue and bones
  • Biofuels, which can be made from beef (yeah, that’s a thing)
  • Fabric softener – certain brands contain dehydrogenated tallow dimethyl ammonium chloride which comes from cattle, sheep and horses
  • Shampoo and conditioner, which may animal products. Again, it’s tricky here as Panthenol, amino acids or vitamin B can be sourced either from plants or animals.
  • White and brown sugar – some brands use ash from animal bones to refine sugar
  • Bread, especially white bread, which often contains milk solids. Some breads contain egg.

The best way to be certain is to check for a vegan label or ask the manufacturer.

Most of the products in this article were taken from this list.

Do you have any unsuspecting everyday products to add to this list? Let us know by leaving a comment! If I’ve missed something in the fluoride write up or misrepresented some research, please comment below and I’ll be sure to fix it.

Disclaimer

This is not intended as medical advice. I research as thoroughly and carefully as I can, but I’m a geophysicist, not a medical scientist, doctor or dentist. I am just seeking to clear the air on a highly contested issue. If you are concerned about your fluoride intake, please seek professional medical advice. Pseudoscientific medicinal practitioners such as homoeopathists don’t count!