In 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published a report in which scientists found that human beings share 97% of their DNA sequence with Orangutans. Research has found that Orangutans are extremely intelligent creatures who clearly have the ability to reason and think. Needless to say, human beings and Orangutans are very different, but it’s still an interesting similarity to consider. Could it be that a 3% difference in DNA is all it took for humans to develop into the most dangerous predator on the planet?
According to the World Wildlife Foundation, almost 80% of orangutan habitat has disappeared in the last 20 years. Today, less than 70,000 orangutans live in the wild. Scientists predicted in 2016 that they could go completely extinct within ten years (which would place the limit at 2026).
Wouldn’t it make sense that with the upper hand that the 3% genetic difference grants us, humans would help protect the quickly declining endangered species? Except, when it comes to humans, history shows that we place our economic priorities over natural preservation.
Palm oil plantations cover 27 million hectares of the Earth’s surface, around 90% of the world’s palm oil trees are grown on a few islands in Malaysia and Indonesia – islands with the most biodiverse tropical forests found on Earth. Palm oil trees require a tropical environment and a lot of water in order to thrive, and since corporations have placed their demands over the needs of the local wildlife 80% of orangutan habitat has disappeared in the last 20 years.
But what IS palm oil, and WHY is it so important? According to the top statistic, about 75 million tons of palm oil was produced in 2019/2020. Although about 65% of palm oil imports are used as fuel for cars, power, and heat, the remaining 35% can be integrated into practically any product of our daily lives. After retailers advertised palm oil as the healthier oil alternative (although this is heavily debated and some even believe it’s actually the opposite), palm oil began to fly off the shelves.
Palm oil’s low market price and properties have allowed it to become the most commonly produced vegetable oil in the world. Fast food chains and processed foods use the oil for their greasy comfort food. However, not only can it be found in foods, palm oil is also a common ingredient in the beauty industry through makeup and perfumes. You may even be washing your clothes with detergents and soaps containing the highly lucrative oil!
To introduce some context, in 1985 Indonesia documented just 2,500 square miles of palm oil plantations…compared to nearly 85,000 square miles in 2019. When palm oil first began to gain popularity in the 1980s it was believed the oil would produce large benefits for human health and become a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels. However, the palm oil industry has proven to pose a nightmare of harmful effects, not only for the orangutan population, but for the rest of the planet.
The high demand for palm oil not only leads to air, soil, and water pollution, the plantations are also leading contributors to climate change as they drastically increase the presence of greenhouse gasses. The World Wildlife Foundation explains that a common method for clearing room for the plantations is literal burning vegetation (yea I know, crazy!). Burning of this regularity and quantity not only releases carbon dioxide, it also poses as a major health risk for Southeast Asian air quality. A palm oil mill generates 2.5 metric tons of effluent (pollution) for every metric ton of palm oil it produces, often carelessly disposed in surrounding waters.
Due to its high deforestation rate, Indonesia is the third-largest global emitter of greenhouse gasses. Indonesia’s rich-in-biodiversity tropical forests are one of nature’s natural methods of absorbing carbon dioxide, but because palm oil planters burn the forests down not only is carbon dioxide released from the vegetation that was storing it, extra carbon dioxide is also produced by the flames!
Unfortunately, the palm oil industry is built upon a highly lucrative foundation with overwhelming global demand. However, there are many organizations and countries who have began to realize and act upon the threats the industry poses. Read more on what individuals can do to join the right against our global threat (New post coming 4/27). After all, humans’ DNA does have a 3% advantage over the endangered orangutans, and we should be using it for good.
References: https://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/palm-oil, https://www.rainforest-rescue.org/topics/palm-oil, https://www.wwf.org.my/media_and_information/front_line_stories/?25325/Our-Orangutans-Are-Fast-Disappearing, https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-funded-scientists-publish-orangutan-genome-sequence, https://www.transportenvironment.org/what-we-do/biofuels/why-palm-oil-biodiesel-bad