Jun 6 1:18 PM

Is National Doughnut Day frying the planet?

Doughnuts inside a Dunkin' Donuts store in Berlin, Germany, in 2013
Krisztian Bocsi / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Friday is National Doughnut Day in the U.S. That means thousands of complimentary fried treats and thousands of additional calories for Americans… and millions of metric tons of additional carbon dioxide for the world.

It also means destroying orangutan habitats in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, pushing Sumatran tigers to near extinction, and underwriting child and slave labor.

How can something so good be so bad?

The common denominator in this global conundrum is palm oil.

Palm oil has proliferated across American supermarket shelves in the last decade — it is now in something like 50 percent of prepared foods — but when the Food and Drug Administration cracked down on trans fats last year, some of the nation’s largest doughnut purveyors moved to frying their tasty wares in palm oil.

The growth in palm-oil consumption has meant a growth in palm farming, and that has had catastrophic effects. Oil palms are grown on tropical plantations made by clear-cutting rainforests and planting over peat lands, which serve as vital carbon sinks for the planet. These peat swamps contain thousands of years of organic matter, in some places it’s over 30-feet deep. Slashing, burning, and cultivating those lands liberates scary amounts of greenhouse gasses.

A group of researchers at Stanford and Yale found that expansion of Indonesia’s palm oil industry on Borneo alone could dump 558 million metric tons of CO2 in to the atmosphere by 2020 — “more than all of Canada’s fossil fuel emissions.” [PDF]

And the human toll is just as great. A 2013 investigation of Indonesia’s largest palm oil producing regions uncovered widespread human rights abuses:

Among the estimated 3.7 million workers in the industry are thousands of child laborers and workers who face dangerous and abusive conditions. Debt bondage is common, and traffickers who prey on victims face few, if any, sanctions from business or government officials.

The U.S. government has also flagged palm plantations for their working conditions. A 2012 Department of Labor report found that “among the industries most notorious for forced and child labor were apparel, seafood, gold, and palm oil.” But regulating conditions for palm oil workers is difficult because of the longer chain of subcontractors between plantation and consumer.

Because of the grotesque impact of expanded palm oil production on climate, wildlife and workers, there are now organizations promoting sustainable “Deforestation-free, Peat-free, and Exploitation-free” palm industry practices. According one such group, Forest Heroes, half the world’s palm oil is now covered by that pledge.

But North America’s largest doughnut chains — Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme and Tim Horton’s — are not among the companies sourcing their palm oil from companies that subscribe to those planet and people-friendly practices. Quite the opposite, in fact, preferring palm products from agribusiness giants like Cargil, IOI Loders Croklaan, and Bunge, which sell oil sourced from deforested lands.

Dunkin’ has made a halting head-fake toward using a palm product certified by a weaker sustainability standard by the year 2020, but, on the whole, the major chains are quite literally betting dollars to doughnuts that consumers more sensitive to cost than calories will also not care much about this cause.

However, Forest Heroes, which has launched a campaign and an online petition to pressure Krispy Kreme to shift their suppliers, is hoping that conscientious consumers will care enough about the planet and its people to transform the message and the (frying) medium of national doughnut day.

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