Vegans of Color

Because we don’t have the luxury of being single-issue

Japanese Environmentalism; Good News about Coconut Oil January 6, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — johanna @ 1:33 pm

Elaine Vigneault recently commented giving a link to this Galllup poll showing that the Japanese attempt to live a green lifestyle about as much as those in the US. As Elaine points out, sometimes anti-Japan commentary is a feature of AR/environmental activism, but the poll indicates that views on the environment are not, perhaps, that much different than in the States (so it’s not that the Japanese are evildoers who don’t care about the earth).

In other good news, vegan truffleteer (Is that a word? It is now… anyway she’s a chef! And makes truffles!) Lagusta Yearwood, who suggested coconut oil as a substitute for troubling palm oil products like Earth Balance has some good news:

So I contacted my source at Omega Nutrition, and to their credit it took them only six months and two emails to respond. As their response was the president and co-founder of the company, Robert Gaffney, calling me up and us having a great chat, I can’t complain.

As I suspected, coconut oil is a vastly more sustainable product than icky old palm oil, primarily because palm oil production entails razing entire fields and forests of trees—sadly, it is akin to slash-and-burn deforesting tactics used to clear-cut land to graze animals, which is one reason many of us became vegetarian in the first place. This process obviously destroys entire ecosystems, but it seems to have a particularly devastating effect on endangered orangutans.

Coconut oil production, on the other hand, entails harvesting the fruits of the tree and letting the tree live so it can continue to produce more coconuts.

Robert told me that he gets his coconuts from the Philippines, where he works with a guy who employs about 2,000 employees who sustainably harvest his organic coconuts. Apparently the coconut palms are wild and the guy who runs the business in the Philippines started it in order to fund an organic banana chip business on the same land, so I believe there is some sort of symbiotic ecosystem thing going on there.

Lagusta says she forgot to ask him specifically about labor conditions — my perhaps naive view would lead me to believe that any organic business is likely to treat its workers fairly decently, but I don’t know (now you all are going to leave me links with horror stories about organic sweatshops, eek!).

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10 Responses to “Japanese Environmentalism; Good News about Coconut Oil”

  1. [...] Go here to see the original:  Japanese Environmentalism; Good News about Coconut Oil « Vegans of … [...]

  2. meerkat Says:

    In my experience living here, Japan is very eco-conscious is some respects. When I went back to the States for Christmas I was kind of appalled by the lack of recycling for paper and plastic bottles and that no one used their own bags when shopping. Well, most people don’t use eco-bags in Japan either, but the idea seems more visible (signs in stores and such, and not just the health food stores). But I get the impression that Japan is very, very much like the US in that a lot of people consider themselves very concerned with the environment, while other people are completely oblivious or apathetic and wasteful, and sometimes green efforts are actually sincere while sometimes it’s just to give the appearance of caring.

  3. kimi Says:

    I admire the quest for a sustainable, just and humane butter substitute, but I think we may be going at it from the wrong angle. Butter takes energy to produce. In order to produce it for many people, it takes a LOT of energy (in different forms e.g. labor, fossil fuels, processing etc) to produce. To think that we can find a mass produced butter substitute that is environmentally and humanely benign—and still affordable, sounds suspiciously too good to be true.

    Perhaps coconut oil production is sustainable in the sense that they are not one-time use, disposable crops. But coconuts grown in monoculture still directly conflicts with ecological vitality and biodiversity. And, as you mentioned, labor conditions are questionable at best, (especially considering the affordability of coconuts).

    Before we laud any “solution” as the holy grail, are we sure we are asking the right question? Is any alternative to butter better than butter because the net-value of being vegan negates potential unfavorable qualities of goods such as earth balance and coconut oil? if we did a life-cycle analysis of butter, earth balance, and coconut oil using labor conditions, environmental consequences, and animal rights as metrics, which would come out on top? What if they were all equally “harmful”, depending on your philosophical values? How much labor, natural resources and energy go into the creation of these products and what are the consequences/costs of their creation?

    We externalize and abstract the production costs (resources, labor, energy for processing, manufacture, transportation, distribution) and boil things back down to a competition between butter, earth balance and coconut oil. Somewhere along the way we forget that ultimately they are all commodities that demand external energy inputs, which means taking energy from something else (like fossil fuels, exploited labor, or even you spending 20 minutes churning cream into butter) in order to produce the good which we like to spread on toast , or mix into cookies.

    Whether it’s shipping pesticide-laden (or even organic) coconuts from across the world, slash-and-burning rainforests and displacing endangered species for earth balance, or creating massive dairy farms in order to meet butter demand, it seems we may still be problem-solving from inside the box—thinking in the short term, refusing to see the long term consequences of our systematic distortion of energy. Trapped in this paradigm, will we ever stop to catch our breath and, instead of thinking of more answers, try to ask the right questions?

  4. kimi Says:

    p.s. i hope this does not sound like an attack; I actually really admire and respect your posts and your critical approach to food as an act of justice sustainability. =)

  5. Emily H. Says:

    Huh – I know about the controversies surrounding whale hunting, but I wouldn’t have thought that Japan was stereotyped as being anti-environmental. LOHAS (“a market segment focused on health and fitness, the environment, personal development, sustainable living, and social justice”) — which is, granted, a VERY consumerism-centered approach to those things — is incredibly trendy in Japan right now.

    Stereotypes can cut both ways: I have a Japanese newsmagazine that says that Americans are the ones who are thought of as not caring about the environment!

  6. lagusta Says:

    Heya Kimi!

    Well, if it helps, I don’t think of coconut oil as a butter substitute at all. I just think of it as food. And as a person who cares about this planet and its inhabitants, I try to eat the very best food I can while taking into account many factors. :)

    Could you be a little more specific about what “outside the box” solutions you could propose aside from…well…not eating?

    Also, as my post stated, it is my understanding that the coconut palm trees that Omega uses are wild, not planted, and are not a monocrop (my source at Omega mentioned that the same people harvesting the coconuts harvest bananas in the same area to make banana chips).

    Thanks!!

  7. Sacha Says:

    Can anyone explain what a monocrop is? I’m new to this term.

    Thanks.

  8. ThoughtCriminal Says:

    Hi Sacha,

    Sorry to get all Wiki on you but this will answer your question –

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mono-cropping

  9. Helen Says:

    I think it is difficult to know how to shift culture along in the directions we believe healthiest and most healing.

    Over-simplistically we can:

    1. nudge people and ourselves along a step at a time
    2. demand sincere and brutally honest action

    1. We can use Earth Balance as a tool in opening eyes to the great horrors of dairy production, and from that place of understanding begin to think about the problems with palm oil production and use coconut oil as a stepping stone to wanting to buy locally grown, sustainable crops etc. etc. Along these lines I have taken to encouraging meat-eaters to stop eating pigs, even if they continue to eat other animals.

    2. And then the kind of astute and loving argument of kimi’s post above is so important, because the slow nudging might not ultimately lead us to a world of true equality without us radically re-thinking some of our fundamental ideas about how we live on every level.

    I guess I think we must accept both tactics as valid as long as we are careful about when to apply which.

  10. […] if palm oil is bad for wildlife, is coconut oil much better? It turns out that it really is! What’s important when choosing coconut oil is that you opt for a brand that’s Fair Trade […]


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