Palm oil is everywhere today: in food, soap, lipstick, even newspaper ink. It was called the world most hated culture due to its association with deforestation in Southeast Asia. But despite boycott campaigns, the world uses more palm oil than any other vegetable oil – more than 73 million tonnes in 2020.
But like my new book on the history of palm oil shows, this controversial product hasn’t always been cheap. It has become so thanks to the legacies of colonialism and exploitation that still shape the industry today and make it difficult to shift palm oil down a more sustainable path.
From slavery to skin care
Palm oil has long been a staple food in a region stretching from Senegal to Angola along the west coast of Africa. He entered the global economy in the 1500s aboard ships engaged in the transatlantic slave trade.
During the deadly “middle passage” across the Atlantic, palm oil was a valuable food that kept captives alive. As the author of a 1711 book noted, traders also coated the skin of captives with palm oil to make them “”look smooth, stylish and youngBefore sending them to the auction block.
In the mid-1600s, Europeans also rubbed palm oil on their own skin. European writers, drawing inspiration from African medicinal practices, asserted that palm oil “made the greatest remedies on such, just like bruises or scratches on their body. In the 1790s, British entrepreneurs add palm oil to soap for its orange-red color and purple scent.
After Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, traders searched for legal products. Over the following decades, Britain reduced tariffs on palm oil and encouraged African states to focus on its production. By 1840, palm oil was cheap enough to completely replace tallow or whale oil in products such as soap and candles.
As palm oil has become more and more common, it has lost its reputation as a luxury item. Exporters made it even cheaper with labor-saving methods that allowed palm fruits to ferment and soften, although the results were rancid. European buyers, in turn, applied new chemical processes to remove foul odors and colors. The result was a bland substance that could be freely replaced with more expensive fats and oils.
Palm oil colonialism
Around 1900, a new industry swallowed up all kinds of oils: Margarine was invented in 1869 by French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès as a cheap alternative to butter. It quickly became a mainstay of the working class diet in Europe and North America.
Palm oil was first used to yellow margarine coloring, but it turned out to be a perfect main ingredient as it stayed firm at room temperature and melted in your mouth just like butter.
Margarine and soap tycoons like Britain Guillaume Levier turned to European colonies in Africa for larger quantities of fresher, more edible palm oil. However, African communities often refused to provide land to foreign companies because making oil by hand was still profitable for them. Colonial oil producers resorted to government coercion and outright violence to find work.
They had more success in South East Asia, where they created a new oil palm plantation industry. Colonial rulers there gave plantation companies almost unlimited access to land. The companies hired “coolies– a derogatory European term for migrant workers from southern India, Indonesia and China, based on the Hindi word Kuli, an Aboriginal tribal name, or the Tamil word kuli, for “wages.” These workers worked under coercive, poorly paid contracts and discriminatory laws.
The oil palm itself has also adapted to its new environment. While scattered palms reached dizzying heights on African farms in Asia, they stayed short in tight, orderly plantings that were easier to harvest efficiently. In 1940, plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia exported more palm oil than all of Africa.
A golden gift?
When Indonesia and Malaysia gained independence after World War II, plantation companies retained their access to cheap land. Indonesian authorities have called palm oil their fast growing plantation industry “golden gift to the world. “
Palm oil consumption increased as competitors moved away: first whale oil in the 1960s, then fats like tallow and lard. In the 1970s and 1980s, health concerns regarding tropical oils like coconut and palm on demand in Europe and North America. But developing countries have grabbed palm oil for frying and cooking.
Plantations have grown to meet demand. They cut costs by recruiting poorly paid and often undocumented migrant workers from Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal, reproducing some of the abusive practices of the colonial era.
In the 1990s, US and EU regulators switched to ban unhealthy trans fats, a type of fat found in partially hydrogenated oils from foods. Manufacturers have turned to palm oil as a cheap and effective substitute. From 2000 to 2020, EU palm oil imports more than doubled, while US imports nearly increased tenfold. Many consumers I didn’t even notice the switch.
Because palm oil was so cheap, manufacturers found new uses for it, like replacing petroleum-based chemicals in soaps and cosmetics. It also became a as a biodiesel feedstock in Asia, although research suggests that making biodiesel from palm trees grown on newly cleared land increases greenhouse gas emissions instead of reducing them.
The EU is phase-out of palm oil-based biofuels due to concerns over deforestation. Undeterred, Indonesia is working to increase the palm component in its biodiesel, which it markets under the name “Green Diesel”And to develop other palm-based biofuels.
Boycott or reform?
Today there are enough oil palm plantations in the world to cover an area larger than the state of Kansas, and the industry is still growing. It is concentrated in Asia, but plantations are multiplying in Africa and Latin America. A 2019 investigation into a company in the Democratic Republic of the Congo found unsafe conditions and abusive work practices which echoed the palm oil projects of the colonial era.
Endangered animals have received more press. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the clearing of tropical forests for oil palm plantations threatens nearly 200 species at risk, including orangutans, tigers and African forest elephants.
However, the IUCN and a lot other defenders argue that moving away from palm oil is not the answer. Since oil palm is so productive, they argue, switching to other oil crops could cause even more damage as more land would be needed to grow substitutes.
There are fairer and more sustainable ways to produce palm oil. Studies show that small-scale agroforestry techniques, such as those historically practiced in Africa and among communities of African descent in South America, provide cost-effective means of producing palm oil while Environmental protection.
The question is whether enough consumers care. Over 20% of palm oil produced in 2020 has received certification from the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, a non-profit organization that includes palm oil producers and processors, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks and advocacy groups. But barely half have found a taker willing to pay a premium for sustainability. Until this changes, vulnerable communities and ecosystems will continue to bear the costs of cheap palm oil.