A hundred years ago, there were around 365,000 orangutans in the wild. Now, there are fewer than 6,600 left in Sumatra and fewer than 54,000 in Borneo.

In fact, Sumatra orangutans may be the first great apes to go extinct unless people help to protect them. Their natural habitats are being converted into large-scale industrial timber forests or mines, and increasingly, oil palm plantations. The animals are forced to venture into new territories, many of which do not provide adequate protection and shelter. In the plantations, orangutans are even perceived as pests as they eat young palm trees, and therefore are often killed.

You’re contributing to this.

Palm oil is used in products that most of us consume on a daily basis, products such as instant noodles, pizza dough, chocolate, cookies, packaged bread, along with many more.  Palm oil has become pervasive in the use of packaged products because it an efficient form of vegetable oil and because conveys desirable properties to those products. It’s easy to bake bread with, it keeps margarine solid at room temperature, and it makes ice cream creamier. It is so useful that 40-50 percent of the household products we use contain palm oil.

But this comes at a price.  Growing the palms is directly leading to deforestation in some of the most important forest ecosystems in the world. The World Wildlife Fund has estimated that an area the size of 300 football fields is cleared each hour for palm oil plantations. More than a third of large-scale oil palm expansion between 1990 and 2010 resulted in direct forest loss—altogether about 3.5 billion hectares in total in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. Indonesia and Malaysia account for nearly 90 percent of global palm oil production, and Indonesian oil palm plantations already cover more than nine million hectares. This number is projected to grow to 26 million by 2025, as the government seeks to increase production to meet high demand. As a result, these countries have the world’s highest rates of deforestation. As palm oil production expands, these critical forests are cleared to make way for oil palm plantations.

Clearing rainforests for oil palm plantations has destroyed critical habitat for endangered species like rhinos, elephants, tigers and orangutans, which have all been pushed to the verge of extinction. Sumatra is the home to several of the country’s national parks, however, people are producing palm oil illegally while destroying many areas of these parks.

How can we stop this? We can flex our muscles as consumers. We can stop and actually read the labels on the products we are purchasing. After going grocery shopping I looked at the ingredients on the labels of the foods my family buys. Almost every product contained ‘palm oil.’ It was in our cookies, macaroni and cheese, cereal, yogurt, gelatin, and much more. These everyday products that we purchase without even thinking about them could soon lead to deforestation and extinctions on the other side of the world. How does it feel to think that the frosting on your strawberry birthday cake contains an ingredient that is killing and harming animals such as orangutans, elephants, rhinos, tigers and more?

It is up to us to be smart and compassionate consumers, to read those labels, and to avoid palm oil. Eat fewer packaged, processed foods if you can, and when necessary, choose similar products without palm oil.

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of guest columns written by students studying environmental studies in a course run by lecturer Stefanie Herweck at UT-Rio Grande Valley. Click here to view the first guest column, authored by Abbey Palomo. Click here to view the second guest column, authored by Rebecca Moran. For more information about the environmental studies course contact Stefanie Herweck at [email protected]