My family used to take road trips to Malaysia when I was growing up, and I can clearly remember the first time I noticed the oil palms. They were unlike anything else in the landscape, which up to that point had been a patchwork of jungle, paddies, billboards, and the occasional roadside stand selling steamed sweet corn. The palms were distinctive, their dense crowns dark and heavyset atop sawtooth trunks, but what caught my eye was how these trees, unlike the other trees, had obviously been organized. When I asked my parents what they were, they said, “these are oil palms, which people plant to make money.”
This was the 1980s, and the rapidly developing country was agog at the miraculous versatility of palm oil – and the world’s seemingly endless appetite for this primordial goop, from which a whole new way of life could be coaxed. Looking back, I’m struck by the optimism. I have no way of knowing if conditions on palm oil plantations then were any less brutal and exploitative than they are today, but they were certainly less publicized. Maybe we’d still be optimistic if demand for palm oil hadn’t done a hockey stick.
But even in Singapore, situated between the two largest palm oil producers in the world, we didn’t think much about what problems the plantations might have brought. The first sign of trouble was the haze, which first came in the mid-90s. Smoke from massive forest fires in Indonesia hung over Singapore for days on end. It hung pale gray in the sky, turning sunsets red. The Indonesian government claimed it was due to indigenous tribes practicing slash-and-burn farming, but even the middle schoolers knew it was for oil palm. The haze has since become an annual event, varying only in its severity.
I’ve been thinking about palm oil for the same reason Spencer’s been thinking about rubber. These two agricultural commodities both emerged from the same systems of colonialism and forced labor, and together they shaped much of modern material culture. Much as rubber replaced spices and coffee as the cash crop of choice for the planter-barons of Malaya in the late 19th century, palm oil replaced rubber in the late 20th, capturing in two brushstrokes the transitions into the age of the internal combustion engine and the age of the global consumer. And just as rubber explains car culture and contemporary transportation systems, palm oil explains household consumption – and they both reveal the manufacturing systems, labor relations, and corporate structures that lie beneath.
As troubling as I find the systems that produce it, there’s an undeniable elegance to palm oil. Like fossil fuels, palm oil represents a technological shortcut to a wide variety of highly useful chemical compounds. Palm oil contains more saturated fat (50%) than other common edible vegetable oils, so it can be separated into a large number of fractions, each with different physical properties. An ideal palm oil derivative can be found for nearly any product that requires fat – soaps can be made foamier, hobnobs crisper, and ice creams more luscious. In industrial settings, palm oil derivatives are used in mold-release agents for concrete casting and to replace petroleum products in polymer production. Palm oil became integral to the tinning process almost as soon as tin cans were invented, and people were still filing patents for tinning oils based on palm oil in the 1950s. Palm oil was so plentiful, so cheap, and so well suited to the purpose, that tinned steel became obsolete before we bothered to find a better oil for tinning.
Because palm oil is still predominantly used in consumer packaged goods, especially in processed foods, it can seem like a luxury commodity – something used to make inconsequential things. It’s reasonable to think our civilization is less dependent on hobnobs than on the pneumatic tire. But hobnobs and road transport both embody larger social systems, and whether we choose to change our relationship with palm oil might depend more on social systems than physical ones. Trying to imagine a world without palm oil is almost like trying to imagine a post-consumer society, which is precisely why it’s an interesting subject. Take, as evidence, the following:
- Oil palms (Elaeis guineensis) are native to West Africa and grow in a band approximately 10° north and south of the equator. Small scale cultivation (or at least husbandry) of oil palms dates back to ancient times; records suggest the Egyptians were trading palm oil 3000 BCE. The oil palm is deeply entwined in the traditional cultures of West Africa – and, by extension, in the cultures of the places where enslaved West African people were sent. Unrefined palm oil, which ranges in color from carrot to stop-light, is used as seasoning, medicine, and ceremonial unguent, and the tree’s wood and leaves are also used. It’s a key ingredient in jollof rice (the national dish of Nigeria) and feijoada (the national dish of Brazil).
- Once Europeans discovered an appetite for palm oil, colonists brought oil palms to Southeast Asia in the 19th century. Commercial cultivation today is centered in Malaysia and Indonesia, which together supply 85% of the global market. This is partly attributable to political and developmental factors, but the reason plantations were established in the region at all is that the trees yield more fruit there than in their native habitat.
- The trees take 5 years to begin bearing fruit in commercially useful quantities, after which they are generally considered to have a productive life of 20-25 years. Harvesting involves chopping off a 25-kilogram bunch of fruit and allowing it to simply fall to the ground. This can be done with a man lift, a kind of polesaw, or a belt and a high risk of injury.
- The process of obtaining oil from the harvested fruit is simple enough that it can be done at home, as in this video. Industrial palm oil mills can be highly mechanized (like in this video) or mostly manual (as in this one). Regardless of the method, the seeds of the fruit (palm kernels) are clearly visible in the waste stream; these are recovered and pressed for palm kernel oil. Between palm oil and palm kernel oil, oil palms are the most productive source of vegetable oil, yielding approximately 4x as much oil per acre as its closest competitor, rapeseed (canola).
- Once palm oil has been extracted from the fruit, it undergoes a series of chemical engineering processes that look more like the petrochemical supply chain than an agricultural one. Most cooking oil undergoes unappetizing processes in the name of refinement, but palm oil is the only one that’s commonly separated by dry fractionation after refining. Dry fractionation consists of causing specific fat crystals to grow in the oil, then separating them from the remaining liquids, and is the first step towards obtaining the galaxy of palm oil fractions and derivatives we rely on today.
Over the next few months, I’ll be writing about all of this – why palm oil is in everything, and why we buy everything with palm oil. A liquid can be a lens, and palm oil makes the interplay between manufacturing technology and the consumer economy spring into focus. I look forward to telling this story.
If you’d like to read more about palm oil before that, Josie Phillips has written some terrific explainers on palm oil processing and the current state of the industry, and Jocelyn Zuckerman’s Planet Palm is a highly readable history of the plant’s origins and early days as a cash crop.
Lamb fat is a nearly perfect die tapping lubricant, as described in this wonderfully pre-social media thread on Practical Machinist.
p.s. - We should know one another better – if you’re in the Boston area, simply reply to this email and coffee’s on me (I’ll even bring hobnobs).
p.p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here’s what we’re doing about it.