It has become increasingly fashionable among some in my Jewish community to promote the notion that kosher food must be, what they call, "sustainable." First, it is important to understand that kosher food laws are strictly religious in nature; it is a myth that they kosher foods are healthier, safer, or even cleaner than other foods. There are entire sets of religious laws, separate from kosher laws, that deal with important issues such as business ethics and environmental protection, a broad concept called tikun olam, or repairing the world.
But increasingly, some liberal activists have been trying to co-opt kosher food laws to push an environmental agenda that is based neither in Jewish law or objective evidence. The latest example is particularly troubling, because it undermines not only Jewish principles, but basic human rights.
Recently, added as a target of the "sustainability" agenda is palm oil, the food additive and vegetable oil that can be found in foods we eat every day, as well as in a range of consumer products.
The claim is that palm oil is environmentally destructive and thus should be considered not kosher.
It all started with a piece for the British outlet, Jewish Chronicle Online, where Reform Rabbi Neil Amswych urged Jews to "avoid any products with palm oil" because, in his view, there is "currently no such thing as sustainable palm oil,"(The Jewish Chronicle, "The damaging oil in your kosher food," October 6, 2011). The rabbi deserves credit for creativity, as he tried to make his piece timely by pointing out that "The palm is popular with Jews during Succot."
Unfortunately, the Rabbi's argument is even flimsier than my home-made sukkah. While Rabbi Amswych's heart may be in the right place, the claim that palm oil is unsustainable is false. What's more, if Jews in England and around the world move towards boycotting palm oil, it is likely to lead to genuine humanitarian harms that should offend even the crunchiest of eaters. In addition, the claims trumpeted by groups like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and WWF that palm oil production risks the orangutan population in Malaysia and will lead to overall environmental destruction, is the embodiment of the Jewish prohibition against spreading false malicious rumors, called motzei shem ra.
A report by the Adam Smith Institute addresses and debunks the details of the allegations thoroughly. The issue has more to do with sustenance than sustainability.
Palm oil is farmed and harvested in tropical regions of Latin America, Africa and Asia. It is one of a handful of goods produced in poor nations that are traded in competitive global markets. It is used in everything from food to cosmetics to industrial products. Palm oil is an important source of jobs and income for men and women in some of the very poorest and most undeveloped countries on the planet. Something those interested in tikun olam should value. Radical green groups have long argued that consumption of palm oil is bad because production allegedly harms wildlife and leads to deforestation in the tropics, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia. But reality is different. Palm oil is harvested in a sustainable manner in Southeast Asia. In fact, Malaysia has set aside much of its forest land to be protected from industrial use. Malaysia protects a greater percentage of its land than any other nation, including the United States. The campaign against palm oil by some Jews violates key tenets of Jewish teaching.
First, the allegations are a clear case of motze shem ra. Green groups have been speaking ill of palm oil farmers and producers for years, claiming they put profits ahead of people and planet, and it would be unwise for Jewish leaders to begin parroting these claims. In addition, Jews should never interfere with one's ability to earn an honest living. The palm oil industry enables some of the most impoverished people on the planet to earn an honest and living wage. This is no small thing in a world where billions of people continue to live on a dollar a day. The income from trade in palm oil provides food, shelter, education, and health care to poor Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans. We should support their effort to earn decent wages, not undercut them.
To the extent there is any debate concerning the environmental impact of palm oil, Jewish activists seem to ignore the concept of dan l'kaf zchus, to give the benefit of the doubt and judge favorably and charitably. Rabbi Amswych's assertion that palm oil is unsustainable runs afoul of this notion.
Indeed, he admits his uncertainty, "Although small palm oil collectives in African nations benefit local communities, it is impossible to know whether our palm oil comes from such sources - in fact, it is highly unlikely, since Indonesia and Malaysia are by far the world's biggest producers of palm oil." Ignoring poverty in Indonesia and Malaysia, he's even willing to bet poor African lives on his suspicion that we don't know where every ounce of palm oil comes from. Shame on him.
The desire to protect the environment is a noble one. However, it must be informed by facts as well as economic and moral considerations. Sound economics and morality, as well as Jewish ethics, tell us we should support honorable men and women who provide goods and services in the global marketplace. Of all people, Jews, who have historically relied on agriculture for income when other forms of work were unavailable, should be especially sympathetic to these issues.