How Palm Oil Ravages Rainforests, Endangers Wildlife and Destroys Communities
Demand for palm oil is growing—and fast. At the moment, most of it ends up in hundreds of food products—from margarine and chocolate to cream cheese and oven chips—although it's also used in cosmetics and increasingly, for use in biodiesel. But the cost to the environment and the global climate is devastating—to feed this demand, tropical rainforests and peatlands in South East Asia are being torn up to provide land for oil palm plantations.
Our consumption of palm oil is rocketing: compared to levels in 2000, demand is predicted to more than double by 2030 and to triple by 2050. Over 70 percent ends up in food, but the biofuels industry is expanding rapidly. Indonesia already has 6 million hectares of oil palm plantations, but has plans for another 4 million by 2015 dedicated to biofuel production alone.
Biodiesel fueling palm oil expansion
Commitments from various governments to increase the amount of biofuels being sold are pushing this rise in demand, because they're seen as an attractive quick fix to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By 2020, 10 percent of fuel sold in the EU will be biofuel and China expects 15 percent of its fuel to be grown in fields, while India wants 20 percent of its diesel to be biodiesel by 2012. The irony is that these attempts to reduce the impact of climate change could actually make things worse—clearing forests and draining and burning peatlands to grow palm oil will release more carbon emissions than burning fossil fuels.
But this phenomenal growth of the palm oil industry spells disaster for local communities, biodiversity and climate change as palm plantations encroach further and further into forested areas. This is happening across South East Asia, but the problem is particularly acute in Indonesia which has been named in the 2008 Guinness Book of Records as the country with fastest rate of deforestation. The country is also the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, largely due to deforestation.
Much of the current and predicted expansion oil palm expansion in Indonesia is taking place on forested peatlands. Peat locks up huge amounts of carbon, so clearing peatlands by draining and burning them releases huge greenhouse gases. Indonesia's peatlands, cover less than 0.1 per cent of the Earth's surface, but are already responsible for 4 percent of global emissions every year. No less than ten million of Indonesia's 22.5 million hectares of peatland have already been deforested and drained.
Sustainable palm oil?
Industry efforts to bring this deforestation under control have come through the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). It was set up in 2001 to establish clear ethical and ecological standards for producing palm oil, and its members include high-street names like Unilever, Cadbury's, Nestlé and Tesco, as well as palm oil traders such as Cargill and ADM. Together, these companies represent 40 percent of global palm oil trade.
But since then, forest destruction has continued. Many RSPO members are taking no steps to avoid the worst practices associated with the industry, such as large-scale forest clearance and taking land from local people without their consent. On top of this, the RSPO actually risks creating the illusion of sustainable palm oil, justifying the expansion of the palm oil industry.
Our investigations—detailed in our report Cooking The Climate—found evidence that RSPO members are still relying on palm oil suppliers who destroy rainforests and convert peatlands for their plantations. One member—Duta Palma, an Indonesian palm oil refiner—has rights to establish plantations on land which theoretically is protected by law.
There are ways to stop this. A moratorium on converting forest and peatland into oil palm plantations will provide breathing space to allow long-term solutions to be developed, while restoring deforested and degraded peatland provides a relatively cheap, cost effective way to make huge reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in Indonesia. And governments around the world have to recognize the role deforestation plays in climate change, providing funds to help countries with tropical forests to protect their resources as well as reducing their own CO2 emissions.
For more information on our campaign and the issues behind it, read the FAQ on palm oil, forests and climate change.
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From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
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