The Palm Oil Dilemma
Palm oil is a widely used ingredient found in about half the products on grocery shelves, from laundry detergent to lipstick to snack foods. Palm oil is edible oil from the oil palm tree, originally from West Africa, but now widely grown in Indonesia and Malaysia, two countries that together grow 85% of the world’s palm oil.
The dilemma with palm oil is that its use is driving widespread tropical rainforest deforestation. In Indonesia, the land area covered by palm oil plantations—land that was formerly tropical rain forest–has grown by more than eight times in the past 20 years. Indonesia currently has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. The way land is typically cleared for palm oil production is “slash and burn;” first all trees are cut down, and then ground fires are set to clear any remaining vegetation, with devastating effect on native plants and animals. Some of the large animals threatened by non-sustainable palm oil plantations include the orangutan, Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros, pygmy elephant and cloud leopard. In addition, many endemic insects and other small animals are also at risk.
What can we do? Read labels to identify products with palm oil and consider alternatives. Support efforts to grow palm oil sustainably, by organizations like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. By growing palm oil on lands that are already degraded, we can avoid the loss of healthy rain forest and their rich plant and animal communities. For more information, see the following article.
Threats to the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia
The Great Barrier relief is the world’s largest coral reef system, stretching for 1400 miles off the north east coast of Australia. As the world’s biggest structure built by living organisms, it can be seen from outer space, and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. The Great Barrier Reef has long been important to the culture and spirituality of aboriginal Australians. In addition, the reef is a major tourist attraction, generating over $3 billion per year.
Since 1985, the reef has lost over half its coral cover. Recently scientists found that large sections of the reef, stretching over hundreds of miles in the northern section of the reef, have died due to high seawater temperatures over the past winter. Scientists did not expect this level of death for another 30 years. This event is considered the third world-wide coral die-off since 1998, but also the most widespread and damaging.
The Great Barrier Reef supports a significant diversity of marine and plant life. The reef itself is made up of around 40 coral species. 30 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises, 1500 species of fish, seventeen species of sea snake, and seven species of sea turtle depend wholly or partially on the Great Barrier Reef for food, shelter and spawning grounds. 215 species of birds visit the reef, either to nest, roost, or hunt for food. Over 1 million birds nest on small islands all up and down the reef. Around 5000 species of mollusks have been recorded on the reefs.
Coral die-off threatens this vast ecosystem and its rich collection of plants and animals, as well as the human activity that revolves around the reef. Will corals be able to evolve ways of dealing with warmer seawater temperatures? We don’t know the answer to this question. Our best course seems to be to develop ways to reduce the fossil fuel based emissions that are driving global climate change, including the rise in ocean temperatures. As Mary Oliver says, we are either at risk together, or on our way to a sustainable world together.
For more information about the recent die-off in the Great Barrier Reef, see this article from the New York Times:
OSP Creation Care Team Welcomes You!
Are you energized by Pope Francis’ message in Laudato SI? Want to be a faithful steward of our common home? OSP Creation Care Team welcomes your ideas and commitment. Contact Rachel Lyons at (312) 798-2399 or Rachel@oldstpats.org