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PALM OIL IS KILLING THE PLANET
300 hundred football fields per hour. That’s how much rainforest is being destroyed to plant oil palms. Palm oil has stealthily crept into our lives to such an extent, that it is now almost impossible, for those of us living a western lifestyle, not to use it. In 2013 we consumed 55 million tons of this product worldwide, up fourfold in just twenty years. It is a common ingredient in much of the prepared food we eat, the hygiene products we bathe with and even the food which we feed our pets. In an average western supermarket, it is estimated that more than fifty percent of pre-packaged products contain some percentage of palm oil.
Palm oil originated in Africa, but was introduced to South East Asia in the early twentieth century and now, 85 percent of all palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia. It is in these two countries that we are seeing the most devastation from its wide-scale production. By World Wildlife Fund estimates, five football fields of pristine rainforest are being cut down, or burned down, every minute to increase production.
The environmental impact of such mass destruction is difficult to imagine, largely because, though we can estimate the more obvious problems, there are thousands of equally devastating catastrophes taking place on a less visible scale. The keystone mammal suffering from this mass deforestation is the orangutan. These gentle apes are being killed at a rate of 1000 animals per year and, according to the UN, will be extinct outside of reserves by 2020. They have become the poster boys in the fight against palm oil, but they are just the most visible tip of a wider ecological massacre. The Sumatran tiger, sun bear and clouded leopard are also suffering decline while the Sumatran elephant will be extinct within thirty years unless this wholesale deforestation can be curbed.
We cannot even guess at the number of insect and plant species that are being wiped out as this wide-scale habitat destruction continues unabated. Less obvious still, is the sequestrated carbon release that takes place when natural forest is destroyed. In general, the most valuable trees are felled and removed and the remaining forest is then burned or bulldozed. Much of Indonesia’s forest grows on peatland which must be drained before it is useful for palm tree production. The draining of peat land releases approximately 6000 tons of CO2 per hectare. That combination of smoke from burning forests and CO2 release contributes toward making Indonesia the third highest greenhouse gas producer in the world.
For a while, the palm oil industry did make some efforts at selling the concept that planting millions of palm trees was having a significant effect at reducing greenhouse gasses, whilst at the same time producing oxygen. They seem to have stepped back from this attempt at making their business appear green after numerous research papers demonstrated that natural rainforest sequesters 50 to 90 percent more CO2 than cultivated palm plantations, over a twenty year period.
So, where does all of this bad news leave us regular mortals in our attempts to reduce our large, and clumsy, environmental footprint? It is certainly not easy. In some countries, there is no legal requirement to label palm oil as such, and it is often simply called vegetable oil or masked under some other name. It is often even used in the products that one would purchase in the average health food shop.
That said, because the use of palm oil is so widespread, there are many areas where we are able to avoid some of its use. www say no to palm oil.com is one site that offers some suggestions in this regard. As writers, we have a voice, and no matter how small that voice is, it is one tool that we should all consider using if we are going to increase understanding of the severity of this issue. Not enough people are aware of this problem and not enough companies understand just how concerned and angry we are.