Palm Oil & Us

A villager walks through a haze from fires in burned peatland at an oil palm plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia. MUHAMMAD ADIMAJA / GREENPEACE

For all the attention we have given palm oil in the decade of posting links to stories here, strange that Jocelyn Zuckerman only appears once in our pages before today. As with fossil fuels the onus should not be entirely on individuals as consumers; collective action and public policy are essential tools to limiting the damage that corporate palm interests have been causing, relatively unchecked, for too long. We thank her for this clear, strong statement:

The Time Has Come to Rein In the Global Scourge of Palm Oil

The cultivation of palm oil, found in roughly half of U.S. grocery products, has devastated tropical ecosystems, released vast amounts of C02 into the atmosphere, and impoverished rural communities. But efforts are underway that could curb the abuses of this powerful industry.

A few weeks ago, the Sri Lankan president announced that his government would ban all imports of palm oil, with immediate effect, and ordered the country’s plantation companies to begin uprooting their oil-palm monocultures and replacing them with more environmentally friendly crops. Citing concerns about soil erosion, water scarcity, and threats to biodiversity and public health, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa explained that his aim was to “make the country free from oil palm plantations and palm oil consumption.”

That’s a pretty radical move, and, as someone who’s spent the past few years writing a book about the global palm oil industry, one I fully support. Worldwide, production of palm oil has skyrocketed in recent decades — oil-palm plantations now cover an area larger than New Zealand — but the boom has meant devastation for the planet. The oil palm plant, Elaeis guineensis, thrives at 10 degrees to the north and south of the equator, a swath that corresponds with our tropical rainforests. Though they cover just 10 percent of Earth’s land surface, these ecosystems support more than half of all biodiversity. In Indonesia, the world’s number-one producer of palm oil, habitat loss due largely to industrial agriculture has meant that such iconic species as the Sumatran elephant, orangutan, rhinoceros, and tiger — in addition to various species of hornbill — have been pushed to the brink of extinction. Indigenous peoples who for generations have sourced their food, building materials, and everything else from the archipelago’s forests and rivers have been reduced to eking out existences under donated plastic tarps and begging by the side of the road.

Tropical rainforests are also, of course, vital carbon sinks, and many of them sit upon great expanses of peatlands — soils formed over thousands of years through the accumulation of organic matter. Indonesia claims the planet’s largest concentration of tropical peatlands, and when its palm oil companies drain and burn that land as a precursor to planting, unimaginable quantities of carbon dioxide escape into the atmosphere. The country’s peatlands currently emit more carbon dioxide each year than does the state of California.

Native to West and Central Africa, where it has long been a pillar of local cuisine and culture, palm oil emerged as a global commodity in the 18th century, when Europeans began sourcing it as a fuel for lighting lamps. It eventually found its way into soaps, candles, and margarines, and served as a lubricant for the machines driving the Second Industrial Revolution. Around the turn of the 20th century, rubber planters in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies began introducing the crop in that part of the world, and the post-independence governments of Indonesia and Malaysia expanded oil-palm acreage in connection with poverty-alleviation schemes. Having eventually learned to refine, bleach, and deodorize the oil into something all but tasteless, odorless, and invisible, the industry proceeded to find ever-more uses for it. These days, palm oil accounts for one-third of total global vegetable oil consumption, and some derivative of the plant lurks in roughly half of all products in U.S. grocery stores, from shampoos and lipsticks to non-dairy creamers and doughnuts.

India, now the world’s number-one importer of the oil, went from buying 30,000 metric tons in 1992 to 8.4 million in 2020. China saw an increase from 800,000 metric tons to 6.8 million over the same period. Here in the United States, imports have risen steadily since the mid-2000s, in part as a result of the Food and Drug Administration’s warnings about trans fats. Semi-solid at room temperature, palm oil, which has no trans fats, proved an ideal replacement for the partially hydrogenated oils that processed-foods manufacturers had previously used to enhance the texture and extend the shelf life of their cookies and crackers. At around the same time, government biofuels mandates in the United States saw more domestic corn and soy oil being diverted to cars, leaving a vacuum increasingly filled by palm — and spurring producer countries to amp up the supply…

Read the whole essay here.

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