Dear EarthTalk: I understand that fast-food giant YUM! Brands, owner of KFC, is under fire by Greenpeace and others for rainforest destruction. What’s the story?
— Betsy Barnard, Wellesley, MA
YUM! Brands, which operates 38,000 fast food restaurants in 110 countries (including not only KFC but also Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, WingStreet, A&W and Long John Silver’s), has come under fire of late from Greenpeace and other rainforest advocacy groups for sourcing palm oil, paper and other goods from suppliers notorious for destroying tropical rainforests in Indonesia and elsewhere. While McDonald’s and Burger King have worked in recent years to cut their ties with palm oil and logging companies linked to rainforest destruction, YUM! continues to ignore calls to source their resources more responsibly.
Indonesia’s tropical rainforests are home to orangutans, tigers, elephants, clouded leopards and dozens of other endangered plants and animals. Environmentalists report that 40 percent of Indonesia’s rainforests have been logged over in the last half-century, mostly to clear the way for palm oil plantations. The cleared timber is sold at huge profits for paper and pulp, while the palm oil brings in continuous revenue for multinational corporations despite denuding lands once rich in biodiversity.
Tropical rainforests also sequester significant amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) in their growing woody biomass; chopping them down only accelerates the rate of global warming by allowing more CO2 to escape into the atmosphere where it contributes to the greenhouse effect. Despite a partial moratorium on rainforest destruction announced by the Indonesian government in May 2011, analysts believe that nearly half of the country’s remaining tropical rainforests will be cleared within two decades.
Over-exploitation of natural resources—and deforestation in particular—is a huge obstacle to Indonesia’s growth. According to the Rajawali Institute for Asia at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, by eliminating its natural capital for negligible gains, Indonesia lost $150 billion in future revenues between 1990 and 2007, wiping out one-third of the country’s national savings in the process.
There are “major economic risks for Southeast Asia’s agriculture and timber sectors if they don’t take prompt action to conserve their forests,” reports Glenn Hurowitz, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. “Global consumers are increasingly demanding deforestation-free products,” he says, adding that Nestle, McDonald’s, Unilever and others have pledged to obtain their palm oil from sources certified “sustainable” by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
YUM! Brands is not the only offender. Greenpeace has also targeted Mattel toys for supporting suppliers that contribute to Indonesian deforestation. And two Michigan girl scouts were shocked to find out the cookies they were selling contained palm oil obtained from deforested land in Indonesia. They spread the word to fellow girl scouts across the country, thousands of whom have stopped selling cookies as a result.
Concerned consumers should write the company a letter asking them to stop using products derived from deforested rainforest lands. Greenpeace makes it easy by hosting an online form letter that sympathizers can sign onto and the group will take care of delivering your message directly to YUM! executives.