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The Most Interesting Oil in the World

What’s in everything from Oreos to biodiesel, clear and odorless, and the excuse behind hundreds of years of colonialism and labor rights violations?

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A bushel of oil palm fruit sits on the foreground, piles of other bushels behind it as two laborers work through them in the background. KYTan/Shutterstock

Palm oil is a tasteless, odorless vegetable oil made from the fruit of the oil palm tree, which grows with great efficiency in tropical environments. It’s ideal for all kinds of cooking, is found in beauty products as well as glue, and helps preserve food at the grocery store. It’s cheap to produce and can even be used as biofuel. You might say it’s a magical product, which is why we have colonized continents and destroyed rainforests for it. And we continue to use it in pretty much everything, despite its disastrous environmental impact.

This week on Gastropod, Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber interview Jonathan Robins, a history professor at Michigan Technological University and author of Oil Palm: A Global History, journalist Jocelyn Zuckerman, who wrote the book Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything — and Endangered the World, Simi Adebajo, head chef and owner of Eko Kitchen in San Francisco, and Indonesian anthropologist Pujo Semedi.

Palm oil has always been a part of life in Western Africa. Says 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. So and that’s been a part of Yoruba culture, too for thousands of 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.”

The globalization of palm oil can be attributed — hideously — to the transatlantic slave trade, where it was used to feed enslaved African people on ships and as a cleansing oil before people were presented for sale. As chattel slavery was made illegal across Europe, Europeans still continued to exploit the Africa and its people with the transport of palm oil as product, eventually introducing oil palm trees to other colonized nations.

“In Africa itself, slavery persists. And in some cases, it 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,” explains Robins.

In 1884, led by King Leopold II of Belgium (one of — if not the greatest — villains of colonialism and the “scramble for Africa”), the powerful countries of Europe gathered at the Berlin Conference of 1884, to divide Africa and its resources among themselves. In the arrangement, England ended up ruling over Nigeria, due largely to the influence of George Goldie, a British palm oil plantation owner who’d been acquiring crops from indigenous West African people though the typical manipulative and nefarious means of colonizers.

Oil palm plantations were soon brought to southeast Asia, where the majority of palm oil is harvested today. As countries like Malaysia and Indonesia became independent after World War II, the importance of oil palm crops grew as governments struggled to find new ways to feed and employ impoverished populations. Palm oil became, as Graber puts it, “the linchpin poverty alleviation plans” in southeast Asia.

Palm oil production has a complicated, colonialist history, and continues to be both a solution and an issue in the current day. It’s widely used in the products that we use all the time and demand is, according to Twilley, “expected to quadruple by 2050.” The growing of oil palm trees, however, requires ongoing deforestation, which deeply impacts the local community by worsening air and water quality, while contributing to global climate change. It’s destroyed the natural habitats of southeast Asian wildlife, many species of which are already endangered.

Graber sums up the many problems with palm oil when she says that “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.”

To learn more about palm oil, its history, and place today, listen to this week’s episode of Gastropod.