Wednesday, May 13, 2009


This is a story about soybean oil, palm oil, small unwanted visitors, and President Obama's way with words. Not in that order.

I've been reading lately about the way President Obama is shifting the dialogue with the Arab nations away from an "us-them," "good guy-bad guy" conversation to one focused on mutual respect. We're not going to stop going after terrorism. But we will no longer treat Arab nations with disdain simply because they are Muslim. One columnist, I cannot for my life recall where I read it, actually counted the number of times Mr. Obama used the word "respect" in speeches about the middle east in the course of one week. I, myself, did an "all these words" search on Google for the words "Obama," "respect" and "Islam," and got 283,000 entries.

From all indications, the President's words are having an effect. This week, Iran released Roxana Saberi, the American freelance journalist arrested for illegally buying a bottle of wine. Her charges were then converted to working without a press credential and espionage. Over loud U.S. protests and even despite an unprecedented letter written by Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, asking the judges to make sure Saberi had a fair trial, Saberi was summarily convicted and tossed in jail. Then, POOF! She is out.

So I thought I'd try a little Obama-style detente myself. With some bugs.

I have a minor ant problem of unknown origins, and a fly problem of my own making. I leave my back door open so the dogs can get in and out. And because I like fresh air. Trade off. Fresh air for bugs.

Fortunately, there aren't many ants. They march one-by-one, but that is the extent of familiar ant behavior. Oddly, there are more ants at night (maybe 15 or so at any given time), but far fewer by day (maybe three or four). Looking like little scouting parties, they are always far from any obvious point of entry. They are clutzy. Often one of them will turn around, bump into the fellow behind him, have a longish rant about the accident, and then finally turn forward and continue on. I've watched them for as long as my ADD-addled brain will allow, and have yet to see them make it all the way to a point of exit.

There aren't many flies either. But it doesn't take many of those fat, filthy little buzzers pub-crawling on the rim of my ice tea glass, or grazing one of my precious dark chocolate covered espresso beans (COME ON!) to get my dander up. To put this in context, one summer during college I waited tables at a restaurant in Vail, Colorado called the Iron Kettle. One morning, I had a large mug of lukewarm coffee waiting for me on a ledge in the kitchen, from which I hurredly swigged between table trips. The last swallow yielded something unexpectedly solid. Can you guess? What I spit back into the mug was a horse fly. There was unrestrained gagging, lots of screaming, customer interest, and an unhappy boss. I am not exaggerating when I say that the gag response hasn't ended for me to this day. I cannot think about that episode without gagging.

I imagine that fly, if it had any last thoughts, was no happier about its fate than I. And I imagine the flies in my kitchen would also prefer a happy ending. Still, I have an aversion. And I don't want to share my espresso beans.

I tried rerouting the ants with lemon juice. I tried placing bitter liquid barriers along every crack, crevice and window ledge. I hung a towel from the door to the lintel to discourage the flies from entering. I built a little insect restaurant that I hoped would attract my visitors and allow me to move them all back outside. I tried reasoning with them. Yes, I talk to ants and flies. I even used the word "respect" several times, hoping to recreate the Obama magic.

But ultimately, I opted for Ortho's new line of non-toxic insecticides. Yes, I feel guilty. But at least I killed them with soybean oil, the active, non-toxic ingredient in Ortho's new product, EcoSense Indoor Insect Killer. Killing bugs with soybean oil made me feel somewhat better about being a murderess. Until I started reading up about the product.

First, it turns out that EcoSense is not actually eco-friendly. Non-toxic, yes. Eco-sensible, no. I suppose EcoSense is a more marketable branding decision than NonToxicSense would have been, but it is not a more ethical marketing decision. Ortho's online data page says that anyone placing information about the product into an ad or other presentation material must use the following disclaimer near the product:

DISCLAIMER TEXT: “Not intended to imply environmental safety either alone or in comparison to other products.”

Whoa! It's near impossible to fathom how the company could believe that the name "EcoSense" would not imply environmental safety.

Wondering what could be non-toxic but still earth-unfriendly, I checked the other, "non-active" ingredients: Polyglyceryl oleate (a vegetable-based emulsifier) 3-7%, Lauric acid (another fatty acid found in coconut and palm oil and believed to be an anti-microbial) 3-7%, Sodium Caprylate (salt and another fat-derived acid with anti-fungal properties and a bitter taste) 1-5%, and Sodium Benzoate (a commonly used food preservative) 0.1-1%. I'm guessing the culprit is the Lauric acid. Lauric acid is a by-product of palm oil. Seventh Generation has a great article posted about the enviro issues associated with palm oil. Here's the short skinny:

"The ugly side of growing palm is that, in order to make way for large-scale plantations, vast tracks of old growth rainforest in places like Indonesia and Malaysia have been clear cut. As the global demand for palm oil skyrocketed over the last 20 years (with an almost six fold increase in production), deforestation has continued on an epic scale. It’s a ticking environmental time bomb."

Palm oil is in so many products we use. According to Seventh Generation, more than fifty percent of all cleaning products contain it, so it's pretty hard to avoid. However, Seventh Generation is currently doing for palm oil growers what Starbucks has done for fair trade coffee, and palm oil can now be obtained from growers using sustainable practices.

You know, I don't want to over-malign Ortho. I think it's good news when a company comes out with a non-toxic insecticide. On the other hand, the name EcoSense is very misleading. And I would like to see Ortho go the rest of the way toward sustainability, and opt for sustainably grown palm oil. My plan: to write the Ortho people and ask them to get ahold of the 7G people for help finding sustainable palm oil sources. And to take them to task for mislabeling and misleading.

It's simply a matter of R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

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