This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, The Most Interesting Oil in the World, first released on December 7, 2021. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
SINGER: Oh, oh, oh, bright ideas and an Oreo cookie. It’s a bright idea to dunk it or to crunch it or unscrew it…
WOMAN VOICEOVER: Add some wow to weekend breakfast with Nutella. Nutella goes with pancakes! Bananas!
MAN VOICEOVER: Cheez-it. Crunchy satisfaction!
WOMAN: You’ve got to try these!
NICOLA TWILLEY: What do all these foods have in common? Would you care to take a guess? Maybe—they’re all snacks? Or they’re all available in my local 7-11?
CYNTHIA GRABER: If that’s what you thought, you are wrong!
TWILLEY: Well, not wrong, exactly.
GRABER: Okay, well, maybe you’re right, but that’s not the answer we’re looking for right now. Try again, what if I add these to the mix?
VOICEOVER: You’ll be surprised how many things liquid Tide gets out. If it’s got to be clean, it’s got to be Tide.
MAN: I’m a close talker. So I waS excited about all-new Colgate Total.
WOMAN: Head and Shoulders dry scalp care. Up to 100% flake free.
GRABER: Do not feel bad if you didn’t get this—but these products all have one ingredient in common, and that is…..palm oil.
TWILLEY: Which is what today’s episode is all about. This is Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, and I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and, you know, I don’t even really know what palm oil is. I’ve never seen it, I’ve never tasted it.
TWILLEY: I live in a city filled with palm trees, but they don’t seem oily. So what is this curious substance that is in, well—pretty much everything?
GRABER: How did a tree native to Africa take over massive swaths of Southeast Asia, and even Central and South America, and how did its oil wiggle its way into nearly all industrial foods?
TWILLEY: And most of the products in your bathroom too. This episode, we look at how palm oil helped grease the wheels of slavery and the European colonization of Africa, as well as on the slightly more positive side, how it kept grimy factory workers in Victorian England from smelling bad.
GRABER: What does palm oil have to do with the fate of the orangutan? And to Alfred Nobel, of Nobel Prize fame?
TWILLEY: All that and more about the most important oil you’ve never met this episode. But first: our superstar part-time producer Sonja Swanson is leaving us to go full time somewhere else. Which we are in deep mourning about. But it also means: we’re looking for a new part-time producer. The details are online at gastropod.com/jobs.
GRABER: If you know and love the show, and you love researching all kinds of fun food science and history topics, and you enjoy writing, please apply!
TWILLEY: Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network in partnership with Eater.
JONATHAN ROBINS: From a distance, it looks a lot like other palm trees. I have a hard time telling them apart, if, you know if they’re side by side with a coconut palm or a date palm. It’s really when you see the fruit clusters that are growing on it, that it’s really distinct from these other palm species.
GRABER: Jonathan Robins is a history professor at Michigan Technological University, and he is the author of a new book called Oil Palm: A Global History.
TWILLEY: But wait, there’s another new book all about palm oil, it’s called Planet Palm, and it was written by journalist Jocelyn Zuckerman. She told us those fruit clusters are super spiky.
JOCELYN ZUCKERMAN: And then tucked inside of this spiky stuff are these sort of bright, they can be bright yellowish to red, mostly orange fruits, about the size of a plum,
GRABER: And the flesh of these plum-sized fruits is really oily. You know, like how an olive is actually an oily fruit. And when you press the palm fruits, you get palm oil.
TWILLEY: Palm oil is the most used vegetable oil in the world. But before it was important to all of us, it was important to the people of West and Central Africa, which is where those oil palm trees are from.
SIMI ADEBAJO: So palm oil is also known as, in my native dialect, palm oil is called it epo pupa, which literally means red oil. And it’s used generously in Nigerian cuisine, not just in my own, in the region where I’m from, but across the country. Infused in soups, rice dishes, whatever you can think of people using palm oil for, Nigerians have used it. [LAUGHS]
GRABER: You might remember Simi Adebajo from our episode on bouillon, she’s the head chef and owner of Eko Kitchen in San Francisco.
ADEBAJO: Palm oil is critical in Nigerian cooking. I could not imagine Nigerian food without palm oil.
TWILLEY: Jonathan told us this palm oil has been eaten and used in Western Africa for thousands and thousands of years—probably as long as there have been people there.
GRABER: And it wasn’t just kind of an occasional treat, it was so central to the diet in Western Africa that the oil palm tree shows up in religious stories and ceremonies.
ADEBAJO: When a couple is about to get married, they bless them with palm oil. And they say, may their life be as sweet as the palm oil is. And that’s been a part of Yoruba culture, too, for thousands of years. And in our traditional religions, we see the people using palm oil as a sacrifice to the gods, and these religions were being practiced, as I said thousands of years ago.
TWILLEY: In creation stories from the region, oil palm was often created before humans were created because it was basically impossible to imagine life without it.
ROBINS: Oh, it’s enormous, enormously important. It’s the main source of fat in the region where the oil palm tree is predominant, which is the coastal humid regions of Western Africa. And so it’s an oil for cooking. The human body needs fat. And in particular, palm oil provides vitamin A. Part of the, the bright red color comes from vitamin A, which is a fat-soluble vitamin. And together, these things were really important for human nutrition.
ZUCKERMAN: For thousands of years, it’s been used in West Africa for multiple things: As a food, as like, a skin ointment, both for moisturizing and for dealing with wounds and things.
TWILLEY: And Simi told us the oil isn’t just full of vitamins and a good source of fat—it was also an essential pre-refrigeration food preservation hack.
ADEBAJO: Frying the meats and our stews and soups in this oil is a way for them to keep longer in the heat. So it’s always used as a base in the beginning of cooking in order to fry things so that the stew or soup or whatever dish you are making can last for long. Despite what the weather is like.
GRABER: As I mentioned, I’ve never had palm oil, at least not straight—what’s it like?
ADEBAJO: In Nigeria, some people actually eat just the palm oil with like boiled yam tubers. That’s actually a traditional dish from the eastern region of Nigeria. Because the palm oil itself has this like sweet… that’s the best word I can use. It’s a slightly sweet natural sugar taste that comes with the oil
ROBINS: To me, the flavor comes off as something in the neighborhood of pumpkins or in the squash family. It’s sort of reminiscent of that. But it’s not a particularly strong flavor. Unless the oil has been allowed to ferment a little bit longer, which some people really enjoy. It adds a nice sharp bite to the oil.
TWILLEY: Originally, people probably figured out how deliciously oily these palm fruits were by just picking up the fallen fruit from the ground.
ROBINS: But it gets pretty badly bruised as it falls, and very quickly spoils and turns rancid. And so most of the large-scale production that occurred historically came from people cutting clusters from the very top of these top palm trees.
ZUCKERMAN: Somebody would have to, generally a guy, would sort of shimmy his way up with a sort of homemade lasso that he’d put around the trunk and go up there with a machete. And sort of bonk off these bunches and they go flying to the ground and… everyone else has to run away because they’re like 90 pounds and as I said, they’re very spiky and they could do some serious damage.
GRABER: And then Europeans showed up in the region in the 1400s. In most stories we tell, Europeans are pretty suspicious of native foods. But at least some of them were fans of palm oil from the get-go.
ROBINS: Yeah, the very earliest descriptions are really positive. The first unambiguous description is from a Venetian sailor known in English as Cadamosto. He thinks it’s wonderful. He describes it as giving oil a wonderful flavor very much like olive oil, and a color that he thinks is even better than the color saffron adds to food. So he loves it.
TWILLEY: That said, it’s not like Europeans started chugging palm oil en masse. Instead, they were mostly interested in it as a lubricant for their big money maker, the slave trade.
ROBINS: And we know from records of slave ships that they carried significant amounts, barrels, huge barrels of palm oil, as food for captives on board slave ships. In one case, an author suggests that the captives have died without having this oil because they won’t eat food without it, it’s so essential to what constitutes ideas of food in the region. And when ships arrive in the Americas, in the Caribbean and Brazil, any leftover palm oil that was on deck was often used to clean up captives to prepare them for sale. And to give them a shiny physical appearance, which was believed to make them look healthier and therefore more valuable to the slave purchasers.
GRABER: So that’s how palm oil got to Brazil, alongside slavery. But its next big move was to kind of replace slavery.
ROBINS: Well, palm oil is one of the products that begins to replace the trade in slaves in the 19th century as first Britain and then a number of other European countries begin to outlaw the transatlantic slave trade. So these countries have large fleets of ships, they have wealthy businesses that are looking for new outlets for their capital. And palm oil is one of many products that they turn to, in pursuit of what they call legitimate trade.
ZUCKERMAN: So basically, this system that was in place with these middlemen, and with these rivers going up into the interior, and these canoes trading back and forth, they started bringing palm oil, basically, instead of humans, down to trade with the Europeans.
TWILLEY: Britain abolished slavery in the 1830s and in the next few decades so did much of the rest of the world. Which obviously is great, but it’s important to point out, that didn’t mean Africans weren’t still being enslaved. They were just being enslaved to grow palm oil.
ROBINS: In Africa itself, slavery persists. And in some cases, expands, to cater to this new market in palm oil. Some states that become specialized palm oil exporters employ very large numbers of slaves working on plantations and making oil in very large scale, almost factory-like settings.
GRABER: And then increasingly, those palm oil plantations were being run by Europeans rather than Africans, because of the discovery of quinine in 1820.
TWILLEY: Before then, Europeans really couldn’t travel far inland in Africa, because malaria was so endemic and so deadly. We talked about this in our tonic episode.
GRABER: But after quinine, they could head further inland and take over plantations and also buy up land and create new ones. And on their palm oil plantations, the Europeans used what basically amounted to slave labor.
TWILLEY: Meanwhile, at the same time, in the early 1800s, the industrial revolution was in full swing in England, and in fact all over Europe.
ZUCKERMAN: There were all these people who were now working in factories who had not been before, coming home, grimy from factory jobs. And at the same time, soap makers had figured out how to use vegetable fat to make soap.
TWILLEY: You make soap by mixing the acids from fat with an alkaline substance—in the past, people mostly used boiled animal fat mixed with wood ash or lye
GRABER: But then in the 1800s chemists figured out how to break down vegetable fats into different parts, and some of those parts were good for making soap. Palm oil is vegetable oil, so it was great for soap. And then palm oil was also used to literally grease the wheels of the Industrial Revolution, it was used as a lubricant for machines and trains.
TWILLEY: And there were more and more machines and more and more people getting grimy while working with them so European demand for palm oil started to go up.
ROBINS: But it really accelerates in the 1880s and 1890s. This is a period in which industrialists are writing about a famine in fats. New industries, particularly margarine, have popped up. And they’re competing with old industries like soap and candle making, for the same raw materials for fats, like palm oil. And so there’s an enormous interest in getting more palm oil in the 1880s and 1890s.
TWILLEY: This was also around about when palm oil first started creeping into the European food supply. Before then, it had been gaining ground in soap and in machinery, but people hadn’t really been eating it outside of Africa and Brazil.
ROBINS: The first evidence I’ve seen dates to the late 1860s, early 1870s. And these are illicit uses. Manufacturers of what was known as renovated butter, which was rancid butter that was melted and washed to try to clean it up again for resale—there are allegations that renovated butter producers are slipping palm oil in, very small amounts, as a coloring to restore a bright yellow color to what’s otherwise fairly unappetizing butter.
GRABER: That unappetizing rancid butter was then replaced with the very first margarines—those were typically made of beef tallow, because it was a cheaper alternative. And palm oil was also used as an ingredient to help turn margarine that rich buttery yellow color because the oil is so colorful itself.
ROBINS: It’s initially not used as a primary ingredient, because the quality of palm oil coming out of Africa, at this point, is not very good. It’s designed for inedible industrial markets.
TWILLEY: For one, Africans were keeping the good, eating-quality oil for themselves. And for another thing, shipping was slower in those days and the processing technology was less advanced and the oil often went rancid en route.
ROBINS: And so it has very strong flavors and undesirable odors that would just not make it very feasible to use as a main ingredient in something like margarine. But it’s very effective as a coloring agent. And that’s how it first creeps into these industrial foods.
TWILLEY: At this time, like Jonathan says, there was a bit of a panic about fats. But there was also a lot of brand new chemistry being invented. In general, scientists were coming up with all sorts of ways to break things down and recombine them. And they, of course, were interested in fats too. Including palm oil.
ROBINS: And so the cumulative effect of these chemical processes is to reduce a substance like palm oil to its core chemical constituents, stripping away everything that’s not a fat, the things that give natural oils their flavors and their colors and their aromas. When these things get stripped away with refining tools, what you’re left with is a clear, flavorless, odorless substance. So the effect on quality is to remove the things that we often associate with quality, to turn it into sort of a blank palette to be turned into something else later on.
GRABER: The industrial revolution combined with this chemical revolution, which helped break down palm oil into useful parts, it all set the stage for the next phase in palm oil’s story. This part includes some interesting personalities. One of those was a British guy named William Lever.
ZUCKERMAN: So he was born in the town of Bolton. He was the 7th out of 10 kids born to a guy who had a little grocery shop. And he was this sort of tiny man with little hands and feet, everybody remarked about him, but these like very intense blue eyes that could stare right through you.
TWILLEY: William Lever started out trading in milk and eggs, and then he had a brainwave. He saw how popular soap was getting—all these poor factory workers scrubbing away coal dust and so on—and at the time soap was made and sold in long bulk bars. Grocers would just cut off a slice for you to buy.
ZUCKERMAN: So William Lever started saying, we should sell this in like little individual bars, and then we can put this fancy wrapping around it, it’ll make it very attractive in particular to homemakers. And he would put together these advertisements that appealed particularly to housewives, and that the soap would make their skin beautiful and make their housework easier.
GRABER: Lever set up a company that today is the huge huge multinational called Unilever, and the soap was called Sunlight, because of its beautiful orange gold color. The company also eventually turned palm oil into dish soap and laundry soap—
MAN: Get all your dishes Sunlight clean. New Sunlight: With real lemon juice for extra cleaning power!
TWILLEY: Sunlight soap was a blockbuster success. Lever helped create a huge huge market for palm oil in Europe.
GRABER: And that brings us to our second interesting character: a guy named George Goldie, who took advantage of that market. George was from a pretty wealthy family, and his brother married a woman whose dad was in the palm oil business in Africa, but his business was failing.
ZUCKERMAN: So the brother bought it from him and turned to his brother, George Goldie, who was very smart, even though he was a big screw up in life. Said, you know, maybe you can take over this business and try to figure out how we can make some money off of it.
TWILLEY: George went to what’s now Nigeria, and he saw how the palm oil business was mostly being done, with Africans working as the middlemen and bringing the oil down river to the delta to sell to rival European merchants. And he figured that maybe there was a better way, or at least a more profitable one.
GRABER: He actually reached out to his rivals and said hey, if we form one single company, we can take over the market from the African middlemen. And it worked.
ZUCKERMAN: Little by little, he started taking over more of the market. And also, at that point, turning back to the government in London and saying, you know, this market is becoming so lucrative and such an important part of our economy, we need to have more of a standing there, like a political standing.
GRABER: It’s important to put this moment in historical context: in the late 1800s and early 1900s, many European countries were competing to basically take over regions of Africa so they could control the resources. It’s called the Scramble for Africa.
TWILLEY: One of those resources was, of course, palm oil. Especially in George Goldie’s particular patch, in what’s now southeastern Nigeria.
ROBINS: In this region, palm oil is THE crop, it’s THE export. So it’s absolutely important as a motivation for imperial conquest. In other parts of the continent, palm oil is a second or third tier commodity. Cotton or peanuts, or minerals like gold are much more important. So it varies from region to region. But the specifics of what plays out in the 1880s and 90s and early 1900s, in places like Nigeria, is almost entirely about palm oil.
GRABER: What played out is that George had many meetings with contacts in the British government to try to convince them to create more of an official presence in the region. Eventually they agreed and they set up a consulate.
ZUCKERMAN: And the consul then spent time and money, sort of traveling from these little city states to city state, often with alcohol involved. Sort of getting chiefs and kings drunk and forcing them to sign contracts that they probably couldn’t read. Saying, yes, we’ll cede this land to you, or we’ll say this is now an area of free trade.
TWILLEY: So far, so sneaky. But like we said, the British weren’t the only Europeans interested in palm oil, or the other riches Africa had to offer.
ROBINS: And these conflicts over trade, conflicts over the terms of trade, often wind up in military interventions, and they provide an excuse to conquer and colonize big swaths of Western Africa.
GRABER: To help settle all the disputes between European countries about who controlled which region in Africa—which was how Europeans at the time saw Africa, as a place to be controlled—they held a conference in Berlin in 1885.
ZUCKERMAN: And so Goldie was there behind the scenes with the British representative, and supplied all these contracts that these chiefs and kings had signed, to basically say, Well, this is you know, this is our area, we’ve staked our ground. And so coming out of that conference is when Africa was divided up and given to the various European powers. They said, Okay, this whole what is now southern Nigeria should go to the Brits because clearly this is sort of their sphere of influence.
ROBINS: And by 1900, the entire oil palm belt, with the exception of Liberia, was under the control of European colonizers.
TWILLEY: Nigeria itself was actually nearly named Goldesia, after George Goldie—that’s how big a deal palm oil was to the colonizing powers. Palm oil isn’t the only reason Africa ended up colonized by Europeans, but I have to admit, I was surprised by how much of a factor it was.
GRABER: But other than coloring margarine, palm oil was still mostly used to make soap products and lubricants. So how did it invade industrial food? That story coming up, after this break.
TWILLEY: Okay, so we’re still in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And chemists are having a field day with all these fun new ways of breaking down vegetable oils and making new products. They figured out how to extract glycerin from palm oil, which then in the hands of Alfred Nobel, of Nobel Prize Fame, went on to become a key element in dynamite, which went on to create havoc in the first world war.
MAN: It’s a force we have not known until now.
GRABER: This is from a very dramatic movie about Alfred Nobel made in the 1950s.
MAN: This dynamite… in a way is like a new key in our hands. It shall open up the bowels of the earth, bring its treasures up, and explode the silence of nature.
GRABER: Explosive potential was one aspect of glycerin, but it also became a key ingredient in moisturizers and cosmetics. When chemists broke palm oil or other vegetable oils down into clear, odor-free malleable fat derivatives, those chemicals could be used in any number of products.
ROBINS: And so it creates an almost unlimited market for palm oil. But it creates a market that’s incredibly competitive. You know, you have cottonseed producers in the American South who are competing for the same customers with oil palm farmers in Western Africa. And the result is that anyone who has fats to sell can find customers for them, but the prices that they get for their products are often quite low as a result.
TWILLEY: Basically, palm oil is swappable for any other oil that could be broken down to make the same chemicals. And just as palm oil was getting big, petroleum oil was entering the scene. The first commercial oil wells started coming online in the late 1800s.
GRABER: Petroleum could take the place of palm oil first as a lubricant for machinery. And then chemists broke it down, the way they broke palm oil down, and so by the 1930s it was also useful for detergents and soaps, basically it could be swapped in for palm oil. And it often was.
TWILLEY: But what about food? That’s where most palm oil goes today—but actually, it didn’t find its way into the industrial food system until, well, the industrial food system took shape, which is really post World War II. You’ve heard us tell this story before.
ROBINS: Well, when the Second World War ends, it’s obvious that the world is desperately short of food. The early meetings of the United Nations as the war is wrapping up are heavily focused on food scarcity and what they see as an upcoming shortage of food,
GRABER: There was a protein panic, as we talked about in our episode on plant based meats, and this led to research into fungal chicken. And there was also, well, a fat frenzy.
ROBINS: And so fats from tropical countries, particularly palm oil, are seen as really essential at this point, because they can be used in margarine, they can be used as frying and baking fats. They’re extremely versatile. And they can be mass produced. And so the expectation after World War Two is that both small scale producers in Africa and these plantations that have taken root in Southeast Asia, they can both scale up enormously. The market as they see it is practically unlimited. As much palm oil as they can make, they’ll be able to sell.
TWILLEY: So let’s backtrack a minute here, because last we saw the oil palm tree, it was in Western Africa, which is where it’s from, and also Brazil, where it arrived as part of the slave trade. So how did it take root in Southeast Asia?
ZUCKERMAN: I mean, the conditions are just right for it. So it grows best at 10 degrees to the north and south of the equator.
GRABER: People who worked with oil palms noticed that southeast Asia would be a perfect home for them, and they brought some trees over to give it a try. There were some early attempts in the 1860s and the 1870s—
ROBINS: And they’re just flops, because palm oil is too expensive to make, and nobody wants it. There’s plenty of coconut oil around, local people in Southeast Asia prefer the taste of coconut oil in foods and palm oil is… it’s a very different flavor. So it, just an unacceptable substitute.
TWILLEY: Also at that time, anyone who wanted to make a buck growing something for export in southeast Asia was growing rubber trees—that was where the money was. But by the end of World War II, synthetic rubber had fully taken over, and the bottom had completely fallen out of the rubber tree plantation business.
GRABER: But those rubber plantations in southeast Asia were in a great location, and there were already trains and other infrastructure set up to get product from point A to point B. So it was pretty easy to swap in oil palms for rubber trees.
TWILLEY: Sure, trains and pre-existing plantation infrastructure is nice. But why not scale up production in Africa, where the oil palm tree is from? With everyone clamoring for more palm oil, you’d think that would be boom time for West Africa?
GRABER: Jonathan told us that in West Africa, it was harder to access the huge tracts of land necessary. For one, there was political instability. The infrastructure wasn’t as good as in Asia. And then another problem for would-be plantation owners was that local farmers didn’t want to sell.
ROBINS: And they fiercely defend their rights to the land itself, and oil palm trees in particular. And they’re not at all interested in working as wage laborers on these plantations. In Southeast Asia, the colonial governments make the land available. And they also make labor available.
GRABER: The British and Dutch colonial governments had been encouraging and even paying for the import of labor from around the region.
ROBINS: And these contracted workers, sometimes described as a new slavery, the laboring conditions could be awful. The terms of the contracts were highly exploitative. But it provided plantation owners with a really cheap force of labor, that they could import in whatever quantity they needed. They didn’t have to rely on convincing local people to work for them, they could just buy more labor on the market.
TWILLEY: I mean, if you were a would-be oil palm plantation boss, what more could you want?
ZUCKERMAN: And then the other thing that happened was that, when these governments got independence, so 1945 for Indonesia, little later for Malaysia, they had these large populations of poor people.
GRABER: And palm oil would be a good source of income to help those poor people. Which is what the World Bank thought at the time, too.
ROBINS: The World Bank loves palm oil. Because it’s a twofer as far as they’re concerned. In the short term, it solves local food shortages. Many of the countries that were developing these plantation industries had local deficiencies of food. They were importing, particularly, edible oils from other parts of the world. And so growing palm oil is seen as a way of meeting that domestic food security need first.
TWILLEY: People in Indonesia and Malaysia may not have preferred palm oil, but by the time it was super refined, it was fine for frying. Having enough oil to eat themselves was already a big deal, and then add to that the fact that any palm oil they produced over and above their own needs, they could sell on the world market.
ROBINS: And as I said, there’s this sense that the market is endless. People all over the world, as they earn more money, they eat more fat. Whether it’s in margarine, or prepared foods, like chips and fried noodles and that sort of thing, the more income people have, the more fat they consume. And so the World Bank recognizes that demand for fats is only going to skyrocket in the future. And they also see these other industrial markets. Soap is still an important use, for example, that can help absorb any surplus palm oil that’s not needed for food.
TWILLEY: Palm oil was literally the linchpin of Malaysia and Indonesia’s post-independence poverty alleviation plans. And in some ways, palm oil is a dream crop.
ROBINS: The oil palm is an enormously productive tree. And if we can compare it to the coconut, for example, which is another palm tree, its fruit also produces an edible oil. Yields from palm oil are more than 10 times per acre than what you get out of coconut. It’s just such an efficient plant at converting resources into edible fat. And so for companies and governments that are interested in food supplies, it’s just an obvious choice, if the climate and the land and the rainfall patterns can support it.
GRABER: Jonathan calls it enormously productive, which is true, but in fact we can use even stronger language—the oil palm is the most productive fat crop. It produces five times as much oil per acre as the plant you grow for canola oil, almost six times as much as sunflower plants for sunflower oil, it’s more than eight times as productive as soy. It is wildly productive.
TWILLEY: Especially once Southeast Asia introduced a little weevil. Or actually 2000 of them, in 1981. Before that, workers had to pollinate each oil palm tree by hand, which was time-consuming and not super effective. This minuscule little weevil from Cameroon boosted production exponentially almost overnight.
GRABER: And that was the final piece necessary. Palm oil was odorless and shape-shifting and could be used in all sorts of applications, there was a huge supply out of Asia, and then finally there was a new, booming industrial food market that desperately needed palm oil.
ZUCKERMAN: Well, it’s got a high smoke point. So it’s great for things like potato chips, crisps. And then also, because it’s 50% saturated fat, it’s semi-solid at room temperature. So it was sort of great in processed foods that you wanted to be able to stay on the shelf for a while. So you know, cakes and cookies and things. Because as it’s solid like that, it won’t go rancid and that elongates the shelf life of those products.
TWILLEY: And so this wonder oil found its way into everything! Biscuits, cookies, cakes, instant noodles, popcorn, chips, ice cream, everything.
BRITISH VOICEOVER: New Magnum chocolate and hazelnut praline. Hazelnut ice cream covered in Belgian chocolate…
MAN: When you find yourself with a hungry moment, just put the kettle on and make a pot noodle. Tender pasta noodles with vegetables and soya pieces in a rich savory sauce.
[FAST-PACED 80S BEAT]
MAN SINGING: Whenever I get hungry my brain goes on a blink / and all that I can think about is Twink-Twink-Twink-Twink-Twink—I think Twinkies! Ohh, I think Twinkies…
GRABER: And in case the scales weren’t tipped enough in favor of palm oil, then there was the trans fat scare. Trans fats come from hydrogenated oils, these are oils that are usually liquid at room temperature but then a chemical reaction with hydrogen makes them solid. And in the 90s, research emerged suggesting that they weren’t so great for us. So a bunch of western countries banned them.
TWILLEY: But fan favorite palm oil is already semi-solid at room temperature. It doesn’t need to be hydrogenated like those other vegetable oils.
ROBINS: And these oils had been the staple for manufacturers who are making you know, things like ramen noodles, or boxed cake mix, that kind of thing. And when trans fats are banned by regulators, palm oil is really the only cost effective substitute.
TWILLEY: That switch gave palm oil an extra boost, and then in the 2000s, Europe and the US introduced biofuels mandates, saying that some of the petroleum in fuel had to be replaced with a plant-based oil. Which, guess what, palm oil was also ready to fill that particular slot too. Cue even more oil palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia.
GRABER: And then the third major market as we’ve said is the personal care and household markets. Palm oil is used in soaps and detergents and cosmetics and all sorts of things. But I haven’t noticed the words ‘palm oil’ on detergent or make-up.
ZUCKERMAN: There’s like 200 names that you might find some derivative of palm oil. So it could be palmitate, stearic acid, anything that starts with a palm, or a stear, or “L-A-U-R” suggests that it’s got palm oil in it. Particularly in cosmetics, it’s been processed so much that it’s likely to be showing up on the label as something other than palm oil.
TWILLEY: So even when it’s not necessarily on the label, we use a heck of a lot of palm oil these days.
ROBINS: Oh, it’s gigantic. It’s by far the world’s biggest edible oil industry. I think it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 million metric tons produced last year. And that’s significantly ahead of soybean, which is the next biggest oil crop.
TWILLEY: And that demand is still growing, it’s expected to quadruple by 2050. And almost all of all this humongous amount of palm oil comes from Malaysia and Indonesia.
GRABER: As you can imagine, all these oil palm plantations take up a lot of land in these humid, tropical countries, and if the industry does quadruple even more forests will be cut down. And you will not be surprised to hear that this doesn’t come without a price.
TWILLEY: So yeah, that price. Or actually I should say those prices. Initially, people thought that oil palm trees were super low maintenance, that they would just happily grow in the rainforest soil, but that turns out not to be true when you’re trying to grow them in these mega plantations.
ROBINS: By the 1980s, oil palm is no different from any other large-scale commercial monoculture crop, it’s sucking up huge amounts of fertilizer. It’s sucking up specialist chemicals, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides.
PUJO SEMEDI: So some of it goes into the water system, and then it will enter the river and the spring and consumed by people, and it polluted the river where the fish lives and the fish is eaten by people and so on and so forth.
GRABER: We called up a researcher in Indonesia who studies the impact of palm oil there.
SEMEDI: Hello, my name is Pujo Semedi, I am an anthropologist from Indonesia and I work in the Department of Anthropology, Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
GRABER: So oil palms aren’t better than other industrial crops—they also take a lot of pesticides and herbicides to grow, and that causes runoff into rivers and lakes and damages wildlife and human health. But it turns out, maybe they’re worse. We said the oil palm grows right around the equator, and in southeast Asia, that’s where the tropical rainforest flourishes. Tropical rainforests are considered the most biologically rich ecosystems in the world.
TWILLEY: In Indonesia and Malaysia, the rainforest is the only home for elephants and endangered birds and the Sumatran tiger, the last few Sumatran rhinos, and of course orangutans. A baby orangutan is the star in this super depressing Greenpeace animation.
BABY ORANGUTAN: There’s a human in my forest and I don’t know what to do. [SOUNDS OF MOTORS AND DESTRUCTION] He destroyed all of our trees for your food and your shampoo. There’s a human in my forest and I don’t know what to do. He took away my mother and I’m scared he’ll take me, too.
GRABER: Jocelyn says it’s not just that the plantations aren’t a home for large apes like orangutans, she says palm oil plantations seem nearly lifeless compared to the original forest.
ZUCKERMAN: In the intact rainforest, there’s just like, amazing soundscape. Insects and birds and other things sort of crashing through the canopy and the floor. In these oil palm plantations, it’s just like dead. Just, you know, those same trees as far as you could see.
TWILLEY: But just in case that’s not depressing enough, it gets worse. The soil under these rainforests contains lots of peat, which is sort of swampy decomposed plant matter, built up over thousands of years. Not many commercial crops like growing in peat, it’s pretty acidic, but oil palm can handle it.
ZUCKERMAN: And when the plantation companies go in there, they drain those, they drain that peat, because you need dry soil to plant your trees in. So there are already like, much drier conditions across this area where they’re putting in plantations. And then they often will burn or—sort of, slash and burn agriculture to clear it before planting. But in these really dry conditions, and in particularly in an El Niño year, these things will just catch fire and burn for miles and miles.
GRABER: The peat fires are huge and create these apocalyptic red skies. They can burn for weeks, even for months, and they unsurprisingly cause really serious respiratory problems and even thousands of early deaths.
TWILLEY: But the even bigger issue is how much carbon is released into the atmosphere when the peat burns. One particularly bad fire in Indonesia released as much carbon into the atmosphere as the US does in an entire year. Which is a lot.
GRABER: So far, so disastrous. Onward—palm oil production has a history of a connection to slavery, and today it’s not so much better. Laborers are often brought in under false pretenses from nearby countries, and their passports are confiscated, basically they’re trafficked.
TWILLEY: Also Pujo says in general these are not great jobs, even for people who aren’t trafficked. The workers aren’t treated fairly. Palm oil harvesting is done manually, and it’s still really dangerous.
SEMEDI: And there is a large portion of the workers, is contract workers. Who are easy to fire when there labor is no longer needed. And the wage is low, often below the minimum wage.
GRABER: The plantations are pretty far from an urban center, so it’s hard for governments and NGOs to monitor what’s going on.
TWILLEY: Another issue is what happens to the people who were living on and using this land before the oil palm plantations came along—people who were dependent on the forest and what they could cultivate and harvest there.
SEMEDI: When the big oil palm companies come to say Borneo, all they brought with them is capital, is money, but of course, they didn’t bring land. And the land was, used to belong to the local farmers. But the big companies took over a large size of land. So many, many local farmers were ousted from their own lands and becoming landless.
GRABER: Part of this story is that there’s a lot of corruption in the region and land was given away illegally, and part of it is because sometimes those small scale landowners didn’t have the type of paperwork to prove their ownership. In either case, they were forced off by big companies that wanted in on the financial windfall.
TWILLEY: So, great, not only is palm oil wrecking the environment, but this whole idea that palm oil was a poverty alleviation plan—something that would help all the poor people in Indonesia and Malaysia become middle class? Not so much.
SEMEDI: Oil palm industry produce a lot of money for Indonesia. That’s for sure. Yeah. Because now our main export commodity is oil palm. But then when we take a look at the distribution of the wealth, the picture can be totally different. Most of the wealth is enjoyed by big people in Jakarta and in the province capitals, rather than by the farmers and smallholders in the rural area. So the distribution is not even.
GRABER: People in the West have started to wake up to all these problems—the first issue that caught the attention of Americans and Europeans was the disappearance of orangutans.
REPORTER: When best friends Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen set out to earn their bronze awards as members of the Girls Scouts…
GIRL: That’s so cute.
REPORTER: …They chose a cause near their young hearts.
MADISON VORVA: We became really interested and very passionate about protecting the orangutan.
REPORTER: What they learned while studying the species upset them.
RHIANNON TOMTISHEN: Orangutans are endangered for three main reasons: the illegal pet trade, and deforestation, and interestingly enough, palm oil. Their rainforest land is cleared so that palm oil plantations can be planted.
TWILLEY: And some of that palm oil ends up in cookies.
VORVA: And so it was Girl Scout cookie season and we checked and there was palm oil. And so both of us were really shocked.
Reporter: That realization nearly 5 years ago began their crusade to remove palm oil from the cookies.
GRABER: The end result of what became a national Girl Scout crusade was that the companies that supply girl scout cookies pledged to use only responsibly sourced palm oil. But so where would they have gotten that from?
ROBINS: Well, the main initiative is a joint effort from activist groups and industry groups called the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, which launched in the early 2000s. And the goal was to develop a set of standards and a certification system that would affirm both the environmental protections associated with a particular palm oil plantation, and labor standards and standards for protecting labor. And this has been a… a mixed bag. A number of major plantation companies are members. But the enforcement of these standards, investigations that have revealed violations of RSPO standards has been very uneven. And the response of one of the big Indonesian plantation companies, Sinar Mas, when it was caught breaking a bunch of these rules, they just quit.
TWILLEY: RSPO is known to be pretty lax, that’s explicitly their philosophy—bring producers in and try to reform them from the inside. There are other, more rigorous industry attempts to certify palm oil as sustainable. Jocelyn told us about something called NDPE, or no deforestation development on peatlands or exploitation. But she also told us that even though PepsiCo signed up to NDPE, they carved out an exemption for third-party suppliers. So unsustainable palm oil still sneaks through.
GRABER: It’s tough—we’ve said that the plantations are far from oversight. Plus many officials are making a lot of money off palm oil and they’re corrupt.
TWILLEY: And honestly, people who don’t bother getting certified as sustainable can still find plenty of people who want to buy their palm oil, so why bother?
GRABER: But that said, pressure from nonprofits does sometimes convince companies to try to do better, and then there are NGOs like Rainforest Action Network and Global Witness and Greenpeace who are providing some of the missing oversight.
ZUCKERMAN: Technology in the last couple of years is making that a little better. So there’s sort of drone technology, GPS technology, folks on the ground, who can track, you know, when they see that there’s deforestation happening. And then track where that palm oil is eventually going to land and what trader it’s going to land with. And so some of these folks like Mighty Earth and some of the others will get in touch with these traders and say, Hey, we found deforestation in your supply chain, you’ve signed this NDPE, you need to put a stop to it right away. And so, that’s having an impact, the deforestation in Indonesia in particular is down in terms of palm oil.
TWILLEY: So this is a little bit of a relief. All the consumer boycotts and campaigns and NGO monitoring and certification—it does do… something. But ultimately, not very much. Because the audience for these things—the European and US markets—we’re hardly even a medium sized fish in the pond these days.
SEMEDI: From Indonesian palm oil industry perspective it is okay, if the European and American don’t want to consume Indonesian oil palm because most of our product is exported to India, Pakistan and China.
GRABER: The US and Europe account for less than 14 percent of all the world’s palm oil consumption. India’s the largest consumer in the world these days. This is not something we can solve on our own. But it also doesn’t absolve us from trying.
TWILLEY: So you might think, okay, palm oil is so swappable, how about we swap it out for a different, more sustainable fat. But that’s not so simple.
ROBINS: Substituting soybean oil for example is not a clear cut solution. Some of the largest and fastest growing producers of soybean oil, countries like Brazil, are right in the thick of similar deforestation issues. So it’s switching from one kind of tropical deforestation to another, by switching from palm oil to the soybean. So there’s not a straightforward solution.
GRABER: And anything else we might grow on an industrial scale for fat would take a lot more land, because of how incredibly productive the oil palm is.
ROBINS: There are definitely tradeoffs. I think we could use less palm oil. I think biodiesel in particular is a major mistake. But simply banning palm oil and switching to another substance is both impossible, and I think not a net benefit, environmentally speaking.
TWILLEY: Recently, a few companies have begun working on ways to genetically engineer algae and other microbes to produce palm oil. They’re not there yet, but that seems promising, right?
ROBINS: Maybe? I don’t know. I think it would certainly have a devastating impact on tropical countries where oil palm production is concentrated. And what these producers would do if algae-produced oils take off, I don’t know.
SEMEDI: And if we stop oil palm production in Indonesia without having alternative, it can be difficult for, for Indonesia. So yes, of course, there is a possibility that Indonesia can live without oil palm in the future. but then we have to find its alternative. And we do not know yet what is the alternative.
GRABER: But so, if replacing it entirely isn’t necessarily a solution, is there a way to grow oil palm trees more sustainably?
ROBINS: Well, I think we can see examples all around the world today of small-scale sustainable oil palm agriculture, particularly in Western Africa and in parts of South America and even in a few parts of Southeast Asia. Farming families are growing oil palm mixed with other crops. They’re creating diverse agro-forests that have just, you know, a range of different species and that are much more attractive to local wildlife than a monocultural plantation. Small scale farmers tend to use less fertilizer, less herbicide, less insecticide than large plantations.
SEMEDI: And farmers in Sumatra, for instance, have established a small oil palm processing plant owned by a Farmers Cooperative, where farmers can take a membership and sell their harvest to the processing plant. So there is a possibility, yeah. There is possibility for fair and sustainable oil palm. As long as it is cultivated by smallholders, by farmers.
ROBINS: And so this can be a very ecologically sound way of growing oil palm, and any other crop. The downside is: it’s expensive, it costs a lot of money to harvest and process palm oil this way. And so if this is the future of palm oil, palm oil is not going to be the cheapest fat on the market anymore. And I think that might be a good thing.
TWILLEY: So palm oil *can* be grown sustainably, and some companies are already doing the right thing—Dr. Bronners, the soap company, has actually gone as far as creating its own palm oil production facility in Ghana which sources exclusively from small organic farmers, Natural Habitats is another company that sources sustainably. But they are a minority. So what on earth is someone aka me who really hates the environmental and human cost of palm oil supposed to do?
GRABER: I personally do think it’s not a bad idea to try to avoid palm oil, even though we know that it’s in all sorts of things hidden under all sorts of names. But in food, it is usually called palm oil, and you can buy things that don’t have palm oil in them. If you do want to buy some treats, like you know, the occasional package of Oreos or a bag of Goldfish or Cheez-Its, which I completely understand, Jonathan says get in touch with the company.
ROBINS: Asking questions about where your palm oil comes from—who grows it, how is it grown? That’s certainly a very important thing to do. And there are better places to buy palm oil. They exist. There’s just not much of it on the market at this point, because the demand for it, up until now, has been relatively limited.
TWILLEY: So that’s a small personal step, but, before we get all cheered up, there’s another, bigger challenge. Remember, the biggest and the growing markets for palm oil are in India and China, and those are places where for many people, paying a little more for sustainably produced oil is not an option. So whatever we do here in the US or Europe, it doesn’t make as much difference as you would hope.
GRABER: Frankly, it’s a problem that really can only be solved by governments deciding that biodiversity matters, and climate change especially is a big enough problem that we cannot continue consuming palm oil grown on peatlands in former rainforests. And then any new regulations have to be enforced, and also we need real poverty alleviation programs for palm oil producing countries that benefit everyone, not just the folks at the top. It is really complicated.
TWILLEY: But in the meantime, just so we don’t end the show by throwing our hands in the air: here’s what you can do. Like we said, you can ask companies where their palm oil comes from and whether it’s sustainably sourced, you can avoid it when you see it on labels. And you can also consider doing what we did after researching this story and donating to one of the nonprofits that’s working to stop destructive, carbon emitting, exploitative palm oil production. They’re at the frontlines of this fight.
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Jonathan Robbins, Jocelyn Zuckerman, Simi Adebajo, and Pujo Semedi. We have links to their books, research, and restaurants on our website, gastropod.com. Thanks also to our superstar producer Sonja Swanson for all her help this episode.
TWILLEY: Her shoes are going to be very big ones to fill, but maybe you are the big-footed replacement we are looking for? If you love the show, love research, and love writing, check out gastropod.com/jobs.
GRABER: We’ll be back in two weeks with the sweet fruit of a very different kind of palm tree, ‘til then!