Palm Oil Is Everywhere in India—and Public-Health Experts Are Concerned

Palm Oil Is Everywhere in India—and Public-Health Experts Are Concerned

Palm Oil Is Everywhere in India—and Public-Health Experts Are Concerned

How the cheap, unhealthy oil became the high-fructose corn syrup of the developing world.


Dr. Anoop Misra drew back the flimsy curtain in his office, and the patient stepped down from the exam table, gently tugging the bottom of his shirt so as to obscure a considerable midsection. “I’m not here to give you sweet words,” said the soft-spoken endocrinologist, who, in addition to seeing patients six days a week at this upscale health center in New Delhi, chairs India’s National Diabetes, Obesity and Cholesterol Foundation. Dressed in a white lab coat and with neatly parted, thick gray hair, Misra reclaimed his position behind the desk and turned his attention to the patient’s wife. What does she cook at home, he wanted to know, and using what kinds of oil? “The diet is all fried,” said the doctor after the couple had gone. “This man is 62 and has already suffered a heart attack seven years ago.”

Across the lobby of the bustling facility, where women in saris and men in sandals sat beneath signs reading “Advanced Centre for Insulin Pump” and “Centre for Metabolic and Weight-Loss Surgery,” Shubhra Atrey, one of three clinical nutritionists who work with Misra, echoed her boss’s dismay. South Asians are genetically inclined toward an elevated risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, but in the seven-plus years she’s been practicing, Atrey said, she’s watched her fellow Indians undergo a transformation. “There’s more obesity, including childhood obesity, and we have seen that obesity causes more diabetes.” These days, she and her colleagues see some 60 obese patients every day. “We counsel them. Ninety percent of the time, we discuss about oils. Bad oil, good oil. Palm oil is not a very good oil.”

A 2017 study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that the global prevalence of obesity and excess weight has skyrocketed over the past 25 years, with more than 10 percent of the world’s population now considered obese. Some of the greatest increases have occurred in developing countries, many of which are also confronting epidemics of undernutrition. In India, noncommunicable diseases like diabetes recently overtook infectious ones like diarrhea and tuberculosis to become the leading killers. The Journal researchers pointed to the “increased availability, accessibility, and affordability” of high-calorie foods to explain the worldwide packing on of pounds. “We have more processed food, more energy-dense food, more intense marketing of food products,” Dr. Ashkan Afshin, the lead author, said upon publication of the study last June.

We also have more palm oil.

During the same years examined by the researchers, 1980 to 2015, global production of the oil, which comes from the bright-orange fruit of a tree that’s native to Africa, increased more than twelvefold, from 5 million to more than 62 million metric tons. As pointed out by the three Stanford professors who wrote the 2017 book The Tropical Oil Crop Revolution (Oxford University Press), the growth in production has surpassed that seen in wheat during the transformative period of the mid-20th century known as the Green Revolution. Walter P. Falcon, one of the book’s authors, lamented that the data on “food balance sheets”—the calories derived from various foodstuffs—are “pretty shaky,” but there is no question that the palm-oil boom has seen a flood of new calories entering the global system.

A combination of shady land deals, abusive labor practices, and government support in major producing countries like Malaysia and Indonesia has meant that palm oil isn’t just ubiquitous—it’s cheap. India, now the world’s No. 1 importer of the commodity (it went from buying 30,000 metric tons in 1992 to 10.7 million last year), has seen palm oil, at $660 per metric ton, displace more traditionally used oils, including sunflower ($782 per ton), rapeseed ($812), and groundnut ($1,316). This trend has been particularly noticeable in the food industry, which generally buys a refined, bleached, and deodorized version of the strongly flavored oil. (Though palm oil is also used by the cosmetics and biofuels industries, among others, some 75 percent of the commodity ends up in food, both in India and globally.) In the same way that the overproduction of corn in the United States led to rivers of high-fructose corn syrup and endless conveyor belts of fast food, so the palm-oil bonanza has enabled the creation of ever-greater amounts of deep-fried snacks and fast and processed foods—with potentially catastrophic implications for global health.

At nearly 50 percent saturated fat, palm oil remains semi-solid at room temperature, ideal for food manufacturers looking to enhance the “mouth-feel” and extend the shelf life of their products. It also has a high smoke point, perfect for frying up samosas and poori—not to mention potato chips, cheese curls, chicken nuggets, french fries, doughnuts, and other processed fare. (Palm-kernel oil, derived, in much smaller quantities, from the seed at the center of the oil-palm fruit, is 80 percent saturated fat and prized by the makers of chocolates and other confectionery for its hard texture, among other qualities.)

This past May, the World Health Organization announced an initiative aimed at eliminating artificial trans-fatty acids from the global food supply by 2023. The substance is produced when vegetable oils are partially hydrogenated (TFAs occur naturally in meat and dairy products from ruminant animals) for use in processed foods. Nutrition experts have applauded the effort to phase out the industrially produced fats, which have been directly linked to cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), but their likely replacement—unhydrogenated palm oil—presents its own problems.

In its call for the removal of trans fats, the World Health Organization states that dietary saturated fatty acids are also “of particular concern, as high levels of intake are correlated with increased risk of CVDs.” Public opinion has shifted somewhat when it comes to the relative dangers of saturated fats; replacing them with refined carbohydrates, for example, appears to do more harm than good. But studies have shown that diets rich in palm oil, which contains minimal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, both of which have health benefits, lead to more risk of cardiovascular disease than those heavy in unsaturated fats like olive or soybean oil. (And when it comes to consuming palm oil in processed foods, eaters are in for a double whammy, as it tends to appear in concert with refined carbohydrates.)

In recognition of these findings, the American Heart Association released a “Presidential Advisory on Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease” last year in which it called for lower intakes of saturated fat and higher intakes of unsaturated fats. “Trans fats carry a bigger risk per gram than saturated fats,” explained Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “but the volume of palm oil being consumed is so much greater.”

When it comes to the overall health effects, palm oil may have a much bigger impact, he added.

“Even in developing countries, excess calorie intake is a concern, let alone in terms of composition of that intake,” said Dr. Qi Sun, assistant professor of nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “In terms of palm oil, which is not healthy, I think the consequences could be devastating.”

A 90-minute drive from Delhi, the village of Taoru, in the Mewat district of Haryana state, is a jumble of two-story buildings made of red brick and cement block and fronted by flashy commercial signage. On an apocalyptically smoggy day last October, the town was bustling, with vendors working from wooden carts piled high with shiny orange persimmons and dwarf pomegranates, and honking motorbikes dodging donkeys pulling all manner of burden. Accompanied by a researcher from the Public Health Foundation of India, I wandered into one shop and inquired about purchasing some palm oil. The merchant said he didn’t carry it. Only after my companion insisted that we needed something very cheap did the man fish out a red-and-yellow-striped packet of Ruchi Gold (“India’s number 1 palm olein brand”) from the recesses of his shelves. The local food vendors buy it, he told us, but it shouldn’t be used at home because it isn’t good for one’s health.

In another shop, we asked what oils were available and were presented with a pair of one-liter bottles of mustard oil, priced at 90 and 115 rupees, respectively ($1.24 and $1.59 at today’s exchange rates). Wasn’t there anything less pricey? The shopkeeper finally placed a plastic liter pouch of Ruchi on the counter, for 70 rupees ($0.96).

“People are using and selling a lot of palm oil here,” a newspaper journalist named Adarsh Garg explained later, over cups of cardamom-scented tea. “Nobody tells, but they are using.” It’s little wonder: In a country where the average citizen earns less than $2,000 per year, it makes sense that people would seek out the least expensive option; when it comes to a product that many households will buy multiple times a week, a 30- or 65-cent price difference can add up fast.

India’s street vendors—there are more than 10 million of them—are also increasingly reliant on palm oil. At a night market in the Chand Nagar neighborhood of New Delhi, amid pop-up stalls offering everything from lace bras and plastic shoes to eggplants and shallots, a 24-year-old vendor named Ajit Yadav told me that he goes through five 15-kilogram tins of palm oil every week in order to churn out his popular jalebi, swirly-shaped, deep-fried sweets. “Of course the vendor will use it,” Dr. Misra’s colleague Amrita Ghosh told me. “He wants to earn money. He’s not concerned about anyone’s health.”

It may be an open secret that India’s street-food vendors fry their goods in palm oil, but the capital’s wealthier denizens say they don’t go near the stuff. Still, they’re likely ingesting more palm oil than they realize. Commercial vanaspati, the hydrogenated oil that has been swapped in for ghee, or clarified butter, over the years as dairy prices in the country have risen, increasingly gets made from palm. India’s producers of blended cooking oils are also sourcing more of the commodity. “The cheaper oil is often mixed in in higher proportion than the expensive oil,” explained Pawan Agarwal, chief executive officer of the government-backed Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, or FSSAI, “while in the marketplace they suggest it is the other way around.” Even those buying “pure” versions of such traditional oils as mustard, sunflower, and rapeseed—all of which are grown domestically (and which have saturated-fat levels of 12, 10, and 7 percent, respectively)—will often go home with something adulterated with palm. “We cannot mention any brand in India that you can rely on,” said nutritionist Atrey.

Kamal Kapoor wouldn’t argue with any of this. For 18 years, the friendly owner of KP Agro Oils has been buying soy, mustard, and palm oils from multinational commodity traders like Cargill and Louis Dreyfus and selling them to manufacturers like Haldiram’s, the India-based maker of the savory snacks known as namkeen, and to the shopkeepers who supply street vendors. These days, he also sells to Domino’s Pizza, McDonald’s, and Carl’s Jr., among other purveyors of fast food. Of the 2,000 metric tons of oil he buys every year, said Kapoor, nearly half of it is now palm oil. We were speaking in his office, situated three flights up in the Tilak Nagar neighborhood of western New Delhi. To illustrate his point, he opened a rusty file cabinet and pulled out a plate of nuts and a package of crumbly, palm-oil-saturated snack mix. “There are a lot of new varieties of these snacks,” he said, gesturing toward the latter. “New manufacturers coming.”

Kapoor also sells palm-kernel oil to sweets manufacturers and local bakeries for use in chocolate toppings, decorative icings, and nondairy whiteners. These days, he said, it also gets used to make imitation-dairy products. “A few years back, they made cake with fresh cream,” he told me, “but now they make it with palm-kernel oil. It’s a secret,” he added. “They don’t write it on the label. How do I know? Because I supply them!” He let out a laugh.

Down a floor in the noisy packing area, the shelves were crammed with 15-kilogram tins of oils, mostly palm, which Kapoor sells for 1,050 rupees apiece, as opposed to 1,200 for the soy oil and 1,250 for the mustard. He led me over to a foot-square box sitting on the floor and pulled back a cardboard flap, exposing a creamy mass encased in plastic lining. “Oscar vanaspati palm stearin” read the label. The hard but malleable block had the texture of children’s modeling clay. “We don’t prefer to sell this one,” Kapoor said. “We have a bad conscience. Only D-grade people ask for this oil.” Palm stearin, the solid portion that results after refined palm oil has been fractionated, or separated into its solid and liquid components, is most commonly used for making soap, he explained. But in India, bakeries and local biscuit factories use the vanaspati for cookies, cakes, and other sweets. “If you take one spoonful every day for a month,” said Kapoor, “you’re going to die. The companies know it, but they sell it only for money, money, money.”

Indian consumers have learned to be leery of locally produced foods, but even the brands they tend to trust—multinational names like PepsiCo and Nestlé, McDonald’s and Domino’s—now deliver large quantities of palm oil into the national diet. Given India’s 1.3 billion people and emerging middle class, not to mention a young generation larger than the entire population of the United States, it’s no surprise that such companies are going big into the subcontinent. Between 2011 and 2016, the fast-food industry in India grew by 83.2 percent, according to the market-research firm Euromonitor. “Every five to 10 kilometers, there’s a KFC or McDonald’s,” said nutritionist Atrey. Domino’s Pizza now operates 1,128 stores in India. Subway has 635. There are 377 Pizza Huts and 342 KFCs. You’ll find 242 McDonald’s in the south and west of the country alone. Dunkin’ Donuts has opened 60 outlets in the last five years.

At the same time, the vertical strips of perforated, single-serving snack packages in bright lime green, fire-engine red, and lemon yellow have become a fixture of the Indian landscape, whether in clamoring cities or sleepy rural outposts. Between 2012 and 2017, sales of packaged food in the country increased an eye-popping 137.8 percent, or 19 percent a year, according to Euromonitor. Sanjay Kumar, the proprietor of Sanjay General Store, a 10-foot-wide establishment in Taoru, told me that he now sells 50 to 60 packets of processed snacks a day—fully half of his total sales. A decade ago, such purchases made up only one-tenth of his business. The customers are mostly kids, Kumar said, who are attracted by the colorful packaging and have seen the products advertised on TV. Priced at no more than 10 rupees (15 cents) apiece, the snacks invariably feature “palm olein” (the liquid form of the oil) as their second-most-prominent ingredient. Lay’s Classic Salted Chips, Kurkure Masala Munch, Uncle Chipps Spicy Treat (all PepsiCo brands); Haldiram’s SnacLite Fries and Navrattan; Bikano brand Natkhat Nimbu Lemon Hit—every one of them lists the substance among their first two ingredients. And it’s not just chips but cookies, too. Poof Strawberry Wafletts? Third ingredient. Karachi Bakery Almond Cake Rusk? Third as well, after flour and sugar. The single packets of Wai X-press noodles, priced at 10 rupees each? “Edible vegetable oil (palm)” is the second ingredient. India’s wildly popular Maggi instant noodles, which are made by Nestlé, also lists palm oil second. The country is drowning in the stuff.

Like the tobacco and soda industries before them, the world’s junk-food and fast-food purveyors appear to be pushing these products on the developing world despite being fully aware of the health risks they pose. “In the United States, we use almost no palm oil,” PepsiCo, the world’s third-largest food company, says in its online Palm Oil Progress Report. “But it is used in Asia and other markets.”

In fact, PepsiCo India, a main player in the country’s snacks sector, had launched a health-focused Snack Smart line of Lay’s, Kurkure, and Cheetos snacks in 2007, along with a high-profile campaign touting how it had slashed saturated fats in the products by replacing palm oil with rice-bran oil. But in 2012, the company quietly removed the Snack Smart logos, having reverted to palm oil as a way of cutting costs. The move followed a similarly brief shift by the company to a healthier blend of oils in the Cheetos it sells under the Mexican brand Sabritas. “Higher commodity costs required a return to palmolein,” wrote PepsiCo senior vice president and chief scientific officer Mehmood Khan in a 2010 internal review.

“Oil is an expensive part of junk food,” said the University of North Carolina’s Popkin. “It’s not like the sugar in Coke.” The multinationals are cost-conscious, he continued, “but it’s more important for something that costs four, five, 10 percent of the food than it is for something that costs one-tenth of a percent.”

Elsewhere on the PepsiCo website, readers can learn that the 28-gram bags of Cheetos that it sells in the United States have 1.5 grams of saturated fat, or 5.3 percent, thanks to being cooked in sunflower, corn, and canola oils. The Cheesy Krunchy Cheetos it sells in India, on the other hand, have a saturated-fat content of 5.31 grams, or “not more than 17.7% by weight,” in a single serving. That’s nearly a fifth of the total daily intake recommended by the World Health Organization, whose guidelines PepsiCo purports to follow.

The company is well aware of the risks. “The scientific evidence linking dietary saturated fat intake to atherogenesis [plaque buildup in the arteries] is strong and compels the transition from animal fats and tropical oils to healthier oils,” wrote Khan in the 2010 memo. “Among the many actions the food industry can take,” he continued, “the most important include an effective transition from saturated tropical oils to healthier oils.” Yet, some eight years later, PepsiCo continues to help keep costs low by sourcing massive volumes of palm oil—455,535 metric tons in 2017.

In 2011, Yum! brands, the Louisville, Kentucky–based owner of Pizza Hut, KFC, and Taco Bell, announced that it was removing the palm oil from the deep-fat fryers in its KFC stores in the United Kingdom in order to achieve the “double benefit” of reducing heart disease and minimizing its contribution to climate change. (Oil-palm development has taken place at the cost of the world’s tropical rainforests and has been linked to massive emissions of carbon dioxide.) The stores would still use the oil in fries, rolls, tortillas, and hash browns. In 2015, the company wrote on its website that its “goal over the next two years is to phase out palm oil wherever feasible.” Last year, however, Yum! joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an industry organization, suggesting that it has no plans to stop sourcing the commodity anytime soon. Its updated website no longer says anything about health concerns related to palm oil. Asked to provide specifics on the countries in which it uses the commodity, a company spokesperson replied via e-mail: “Yum! Brands is committed to sourcing more sustainable ingredients for the foods we serve to our consumers globally. We have reduced the amount of palm oil used globally in our cooking oil and continue to be focused on sourcing certified sustainable palm oil for the remaining palm oil we use for cooking.” The spokesperson declined to provide figures regarding the past and current volumes used by the company’s three brands.

Meanwhile, unlike those in the United States, Yum! customers in most of the roughly 140 countries and territories in which the company operates will not find nutrition information in its restaurants. In some cases, consumers can go online to obtain the calorie counts, but nowhere will they find product ingredients or levels of saturated fat. A spokesperson for the company declined to provide this information.

Like its fast-food peers, McDonald’s, which purchased nearly 127,000 metric tons of palm oil in 2017, relies on the commodity in some regions more than others. The company currently uses palm oil for frying “in many of its Asian markets,” according to a spokesperson, and to par-fry chicken and potato products by its direct suppliers “in certain markets.” Ingredient listings are not available either in the overseas restaurants or online. (The spokesperson suggested that customers request this information from a restaurant manager or via the “contact” section of the website.)

“This is an equity issue,” said Saskia Heijnen, who oversees the “Our Planet, Our Health” program at the London-based Wellcome Trust, which is funding research into the environmental and health implications of the global palm-oil industry. “The people who can afford it can buy products with less palm oil or no palm oil, whereas the people who can’t are stuck with it.”

Pawan Agarwal, the head of India’s Food Safety and Standards Authority, insisted that the government is taking steps to address the country’s obesity problem, including through a focus on processed and fast foods and, in particular, on unhealthy ingredients. Already, said Agarwal, who met me in his sprawling New Delhi office, his agency had set a 5 percent limit on trans fats in vanaspati and bakery shortenings. It intends to lower that to just 2 percent by 2022. In April, the authority issued a draft version of rules requiring manufacturers to display the sugar, fat, and salt content of products on the front of their packaging, a system that he hopes to have in place later this year. The proposal includes a red flag to be featured on any products that exceed certain thresholds for salt, sugar, and saturated fats.

Some in the country are calling for more stringent measures. In 2016, for instance, the southern state of Kerala imposed a 14.5 percent “fat tax” on pizzas and other junk foods served in such branded restaurants as McDonald’s, Domino’s, and Subway. A few years earlier, a study by Sanjay Basu, an assistant professor of medicine at Stanford University, concluded that a 20 percent tax on palm oil in India would avert some 363,000 deaths from heart disease over 10 years. Given the size of India’s informal-foods sector, enforcing such a tax would pose a formidable challenge. (In 2015, the Singapore government introduced a “healthier ingredient scheme” in which it subsidizes alternatives to palm oil for street vendors.) In a country still facing widespread malnutrition, however, raising prices on any food source also introduces ethical questions.

“There are some nutrients that you’re getting from palm oil,” explained Shauna Downs, an assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health. “Like, you are getting fat, which you need.” Downs wrote her PhD dissertation on policies that the Indian government might adopt to address the rise in noncommunicable diseases in the country. “Still,” she said, “there’s a difference between food security and nutrition security. Not every calorie is created equal. People need calories, but do they need to have a huge proportion coming from palm oil? No.”

Others oppose any form of further regulation. Last year, executives from food and beverage multinationals, including PepsiCo and Nestlé, met with trade groups in New Delhi to discuss strategies for lobbying against stricter labeling rules and the possibility of a national junk-food tax. Subodh Jindal, president of the All India Food Processors’ Association, or AIFPA, whose members range from street vendors to multinationals, is among those pushing back. “The first thing is for somebody to prove—technically, medically—that people in India are…obese,” said Jindal, with whom I spoke several times via What’sApp. “This is a made-up issue,” he added, “fabricated by NGOs and certain pharma lobbies.”

The companies that make the food, Jindal continued in an echo of food lobbyists worldwide, are not the parties at fault. “The food per se is not a problem. If you keep drinking 20 lemonades a day, and you do not take care, it is not the lemonade which is the problem, it’s the habit that is the problem.” Seeming to concede that India does indeed have an obesity problem, Jindal then explained that “noncommunicable diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular are more the result of the pollutants and contaminants, particularly in the agricultural chain, where chemicals are used,” a claim for which he chose not to provide evidence.

In any case, he added, “We are finding solutions to the problems of obesity and diabetes and cardiovascular through the system of yoga and lifestyle changes. It is showing good signs, and it will work.”

The country’s chief food regulator, Agarwal of the Food Standards and Safety Authority of India, acknowledged the headwinds facing the proposed labeling legislation. “Obviously, the industry will not like it,” he said. “But I think we have to begin to live in a situation where we don’t do everything that the industry likes.” Yet it remains to be seen just how much Agarwal and his agency are willing to push. A few weeks earlier, he had stood beside Nestlé India chairman Suresh Narayanan at the inauguration ceremony for the Nestlé Food Safety Institute in New Delhi. “Partnerships with private parties on issues of the food business and its research are an imperative for the FSSAI,” said Agarwal at the ceremony. His predecessor had been fired two years earlier, after banning Nestlé’s Maggi noodles based on reports that they contained lead levels seven times the legal limit.

Whatever opposition the local players and multinational companies mount on the ground in India, it will undoubtedly have the backing of the palm-oil lobby, which, after all, has the responsibility of finding a market for the industry’s ever-growing volumes of oil. (And because oil palm, unlike, say, soy or corn, is a perennial crop—one that, once established, produces for a good 25 years—that output won’t let up for decades to come.) In 2016, France’s National Assembly dropped plans for a tax on palm oil after an outcry from Indonesia and Malaysia, which called the proposed measure a violation of World Trade Organization rules. “We are legislating with a knife at our throats,” remarked one French politician. “The Parliament is being blackmailed.”

Earlier this year, after the UK grocery-store chain Iceland announced that it would remove all palm oil from its branded products by the end of the year, Malaysia’s $20 billion palm-oil industry (the commodity represents some 7 percent of exports) launched a social-media campaign aimed at managing director Richard Walker, in which it referred to him as “Trust Fund Richard.” Derek Yach, a South African doctor who served as the executive director of noncommunicable diseases at the World Health Organization, told me that Malaysian officials “came at [him]” after the panel included “a few lines” about how the saturated fat from palm oil threatens cardiovascular health. His experience with the palm-oil lobby, said Yach—even in the early days of the boom—was “substantially worse than I ever faced [from] the tobacco sector.” (Yach, it should be noted, has since sparked controversy by going to work for the Philip Morris–backed Foundation for a Smoke-Free World.)

At the end of October, I flew from New Delhi to Jakarta, Indonesia, to join some 700 participants at a forum aimed at revolutionizing a global food system that, according to keynote speaker Dr. Gunhild Stordalen, “is failing both us and the planet.” Among the presenters at the two-day affair was the Minister of Health for Malaysia, Dr. Subramaniam Sathasivam, who gave a speech in which he lamented that unhealthy diets are leading to increasing numbers of deaths globally and that agricultural monocultures are adversely impacting the environment. It would have been good, he said, had the Malaysian and Indonesian ministers for agriculture and finance also been in attendance, given the roles they could play in fixing such a broken system.

I e-mailed Sathasivam’s press secretary afterward to arrange for an interview and received an eager reply… until I mentioned in passing my interest in his country’s main export crop. “He can’t talk about palm oil,” I was told. “He can talk about anything but that.”

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