How the World Got Hooked on Palm Oil

February 20, 2019

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, there grew a magical fruit. This fruit could be squeezed to produce a very special kind of oil that made cookies more healthy, soap more bubbly and crisps more crispy. The oil could even make lipstick smoother and keep ice-cream from melting. Because of these wondrous qualities, people came from around the world to buy the fruit and its oil.

In the places where the fruit came from, people burned down the forest so they could plant more trees that grew the fruit – making lots of nasty smoke and sending all of the creatures of the forest scurrying away. When the trees were burned, they emitted a gas that heated up the air. Then everybody was upset, because they loved the forest’s creatures and thought the temperature was warm enough already. A few people decided they shouldn’t use the oil any more, but mostly things went on as before, and the forest kept burning.

This is a true story. Except that it is not magic. The fruit of the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis), which grows in tropical climates, contains the world’s most versatile vegetable oil. It can handle frying without spoiling, and blends well with other oils. Its combination of different types of fats and its consistency after refining make it a popular ingredient in packaged baked goods. Its low production costs make it cheaper than frying oils such as cottonseed or sunflower.

It provides the foaming agent in virtually every shampoo, liquid soap or detergent. Cosmetics manufacturers prefer it to animal tallow for its ease of application and low price. It is increasingly used as a cheap raw material for biofuels, especially in the European Union. It functions as a natural preservative in processed foods, and actually does raise the melting point of ice-cream. Palm oil can be used as an adhesive that binds together the particles in fibreboard. Oil palm trunks and fronds can be made into everything from plywood to the composite body of Malaysia’s national automobile.

Worldwide production of palm oil has been climbing steadily for five decades. Between 1995 and 2015, annual production quadrupled, from 15.2m tonnes to 62.6m tonnes. By 2050, it is expected to quadruple again, reaching 240m tonnes. The footprint of palm oil production is astounding: plantations to produce it account for 10% of permanent global cropland. Today, 3 billion people in 150 countries use products containing palm oil. Globally, we each consume an average of 8kg of palm oil a year.

Of this, 85% comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, where worldwide demand for palm oil has lifted incomes, especially in rural areas – but at the cost of tremendous environmental devastation and often with attendant labour and human rights abuses. Fires set to clear forests and create land for more palm plantations are the top source of greenhouse gas emissions in Indonesia, a country of 261 million people. The financial incentive to produce more palm oil is helping to warm the planet, while destroying the only habitat of Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhinos and orangutans – driving them towards extinction.

Yet consumers are often unaware they are even using the stuff. Palm Oil Investigations, which dubs itself “the palm oil watchdog”, lists more than 200 common ingredients in food and home and personal care products containing palm oil, only about 10% of which include the telltale word “palm”.

How did palm oil insinuate itself into every corner of our lives? No single innovation caused palm oil consumption to soar. Instead, it was the perfect commodity at the right moment for industry after industry, each of which adopted it to replace ingredients and never turned back. At the same time, producing nations view palm oil as a poverty-reduction scheme, while international finance organisations view it as a growth engine for developing economies. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has pushed Malaysia and Indonesia to produce more.

As the palm industry expanded, conservationists and environmental organisations such as Greenpeace started to raise the alarm about its devastating effects on carbon emissions and wildlife habitat. (However, it is not impossible to produce palm oil sustainably, and several organisations certify sustainable producers.) In response, a backlash against palm oil has developed: last April, the supermarket Iceland pledged that it would cut palm oil from all its own-brand foods by the end of 2018. In December, Norway banned imports for biofuel production.

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