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Butter, palm oil, and orangutans: How Canada’s dairy farmers betrayed


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On a trip to Malaysia a few years ago, my wife and I visited the state of Sarawak. There we stopped at a rehabilitation centre for orangutans, the charming orange-haired primates whose numbers have been slashed by clearcutting of the region’s tropical forests to make way for vast palm oil plantations.

Diverse stands of rainforest teeming with wildlife have been felled and replaced by a mono-culture of palm trees to feed the global food-processing and cosmetics industries. And the impact isn’t just on biodiversity. The destruction of these forests in Indonesia and Malaysia is accomplished mainly through burning, smothering much of Southeast Asia in deadly smog every year and making Indonesia the third-largest contributor to global greenhouse-gas emissions.

We got to see that devastation first-hand. As we woke up on our last day in Sarawak, the view out the window of our highrise hotel room was obscured by a thick cloud of whitish-grey smog, the sun hidden by the smoke of distant fires. It was eerie.

The growth of the palm-oil industry is one of the environmental scourges of the modern world, along with the clearcutting of the Amazon for cattle-raising and overfishing on the high seas. Yet I never realized I was contributing to this process of ecological catastrophe and global climate change every time I spread my morning toast with Canadian butter.

You can try to avoid palm oil or its derivatives by scanning ingredient lists on the packages of cookies, snack bars, and other processed foods, but the only ingredient listed for Canadian butter is cream. Farmers can put anything into cattle feed and the consumer wouldn’t have a clue. It’s clearly designed that way.

But thanks to the work of a Calgary food writer, the public has been let into the dairy industry’s dirty little secret: It’s been increasingly feeding Canadian cows with palm-oil derivatives to increase the fat content of milk and to make more money. Farmers are businesspeople, and yes, they can be greedy.

With demand for butter soaring — up 12 per cent in 2020 because of pandemic baking — and demand for fluid milk dropping, as people seek out non-dairy alternatives, farmers are desperate to do anything to increase the fat content of their milk, even if it makes butter harder to spread, affects its melting point, and erodes the credibility of their industry.

The article by Julie Van Rosendahl in the Globe and Mail has had the effect of landing a bomb on the dairy industry, a powerful lobby group that’s used to getting its own way, with Ottawa effectively banning most dairy imports through supply management and guaranteeing that Canadians pay high prices for milk, cheese, butter, and yogurt. 

The dairy farmers are normally an astute bunch, maximizing their political clout by courting political parties of all stripes, extracting hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government when it signs trade deals that result in what the farmers fear most: global competition.

But the farmers have also managed to keep the public onside by giving us the impression…

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