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Opinion | Common ingredient has drastic consequences

By Alex McFarland
On February 4, 2013

It's in your lipstick, your shampoo and even in that jar of peanut butter you shamelessly ate last night with a spoon. I could go on further because it pervades our daily lives. I'm talking about oil palm.

Originally from Africa, oil palm is a fruit with a variety of uses. You won't find it much in Africa; you will find it in Southeast Asia. This fruit has been in use since the early 1980's. Before then it was not very popular. A combination of cheap labor and multiple uses has since led to an explosion of oil palm production.

It is now the No. 1 export for both Malaysia and Indonesia. Combined, these two countries produce almost all the world's palm oil.

What does Southeast Asia look like anyhow?

These two countries are hot spots of biodiversity. Thousands of tree species can inhabit a few miles. Imagine you're standing on a hill. You can look left and right with a view for miles.

Now imagine a jungle with dipterocarps poking out of the canopies. The sounds of nature are boundless in their symphony. You can hear the branches creak and crack under the stress of orangutans brachiating across the understory. Gibbons are heard singing a romantic duet. Imagine this is all cut down right before your eyes, and then burned to the ground.

What has replaced the once harmonious forest are rows upon rows of oil palm trees. Systematically organized and zig-zagging across the landscape.

From above you might have thought this was a forest, but upon closer inspection it is an oil palm plantation.

This is the reality of what Malaysia and Indonesia are becoming. To date, orangutans, one of the biggest inhabitants of the rainforest have lost 80 percent of their habitat.

Sumatran rhinos have dwindled to only a few hundred, and many others are on their way to extinction as well.

Most of this loss is due to plantations. What's worse is due to the fast pace of production; many fields are backlogged for re-plantation. Once a tree has produced for so many years it must be cut down and replanted.

Instead of focusing on reusing fields, owners are focused on expansion.

Without seeing it in person I find it hard to grasp the devastation.

No matter how many statistics or photos I've seen, they don't really convey the destruction to the jungle.

So why should you care? After all, you have your problems and who cares if some animal goes extinct.

You should care because it is our fault.

Twenty-five percent of current greenhouse gas emissions are due to rainforest destruction. The peat swamps that are destroyed in Indonesia cause their small chain of islands to produce almost as much carbon waste as we do.

You should care because America uses palm oil in over 60 percent of products.

The issue isn't simple though: if everyone boycotted it tomorrow, the economies of those countries would tank.

Local people are faced with the decision to sell their land to feed their family or save their rainforest.

They're going to choose the former. Why shouldn't they? What do we do?

Awareness is a good place to start. Inspect the food labels at the store.

Unfortunately companies cover up palm oil use by renaming it or classifying it as "vegetable oil."

Awareness of the issue and the consequences we face are a starting point.

Secondly, palm oil labeled as "sustainable" helps as well. Although the term sustainable palm oil has little enforcement, it is a start.

The Cincinnati Zoo has an app for smart phones that you can take shopping to help you do this.

Lastly, investment in this issue is a critical piece often overlooked. If individuals are not invested they're unlikely to persist and it will be another failed New Years resolution.

Instead, the best way is to find something you care about and let that be your motivation.

Regardless, it is easy for us in our Oxford bubble to forget that all the picturesque landscapes Morgan Freeman narrates actually exist, and it is up to us as the next generation to protect it.

You don't have to be a tree hugger, vegetarian or activist, you just have to take small steps to make a difference.

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