With the recent launch of our new palm wax, we look behind the palm oil industry to understand the past, present and potential of this surprising product.
“As a nation we are struggling with a profound lack of imagination. Not seeing the forests being cut down to build our homes, the lakes being drained to fill our tub. We live on the far side of a broken connection. Healing this broken connection begins with seeing beyond what the market wants us to see.”1
— Author and farmer Wendell Berry
Picture a lush tropical scene. Tall trees swaying in a humid breeze, with colorful birds flitting between branches. Other animals are at home in the thick undergrowth, hidden out of sight. Add to this vision a farmer harvesting a variety of crops from a series of bright amber fruiting trees, and you might imagine a smallholder looking to sustain himself and his family — certainly not the future of the much maligned palm oil industry. Yet palm cultivation, alongside global agriculture in general, is undergoing a radical shift precipitating a return to methods of production in harmony with the land, life, and local environments.
A lush, organic oil palm plantation; Natural Habitats.
The Brief History of a Vilified Crop
“The supply chain is a tattered tapestry that needs to be rewoven.”2
— Filmmaker, author, and activist Michael Moore
Oil palm farming began in Central and Western Africa 2,500 years ago, where the plant grew in wild and semi-wild groves.3 Oil palm fruit can be harvested from the same trees for decades, and new fruit grows throughout the year, making oil palm a richly productive crop.4 The fresh fruit of the oil palm resembles prickly clusters of kernels in a gradation of gold, amber, and burgundy. To harvest it, early African farming communities would climb the trunks to pluck bunches straight from the tree, or collect whatever shelled fruits had fallen in their verdant groves. These fruits were then boiled and filtered to extract a prized reddish oil.5
Oil Palm fruit ready for harvesting; Natural Habitats
By the early 19th century, colonial expansion and exploitation meant that palm oil had, in the words of historian Martin Lynn, come to “grease the wheels of the industrial revolution.”6 In 1807, the abolition of the slave trade to the Americas compelled British West Africa and Southeast Asia to concentrate their palm oil exports in European markets, where the cheap and effective lubricant quickly replaced less cost-effective and harder-to-source animal products like tallow or whale oil.7
Industrial soap making in 19th-century France, from Encyclopedia of Industry and Industrial Arts, E. O. Lami, 1881-88, Vol. VIII, p. 82 (Image: Alamy)
In 1823, palm oil producers learned their product could be a potent soap ingredient, kick-starting a new craze for the industry.8 New techniques for bleaching and deodorizing palm oil were soon to follow, creating further demand for oil palm derivatives across many industries. A ban on palm oil duty in 1845 drove up the oil’s affordable appeal further. Manufacturers waited with open arms at European ports for their amber cash crop, referred to as “red gold”. Meanwhile Africa’s land and farmers suffered as colonial powers restricted local access to the crop’s wealth and power, and began to push for ever-higher yields.9
Demand for plam oil redoubled in the late 1800s when chemists mastered the process of vegetable oil hydrogenation. This brought vegetable margarine to tables throughout Europe, where it quickly became an indispensable household ingredient for the working class.10 By the 1930s, nearly 500,000 tonnes of palm oil products were being exported from British West Africa annually.11 However, patchy colonial bureaucracy and the dissolution of an unstable trust system of trade saw Africa’s palm oil industry begin to wane.
Into the 1940s, the lion’s share of palm oil procurement had moved to Indonesia and Malaysia. Both liberated following World War II, these newly independent nations provided a cheaper land alternative for oil palm magnates.12 Undocumented migrant workers from surrounding countries were hired at below-living pay under discriminatory labor laws. These newer plantations would go on to perpetuate the early cycles of colonial abuse and ecological devastation while also introducing a new profit-maximizing technique: industrial monocropping.13 With monocropping, environments are stripped back and sprayed with chemical pesticides and fertilizers to make way for the highest density of oil palms possible.
A palm plantation abuts lush rainforest; Source: Orbitas
Over the 20th century, oil palm demand continued to grow. While health concerns around “tropical oils” dealt the industry a bit of a setback in the 1970s, a USDA-issued ban on trans fats in the 1990s14 rapidly increased demand for palm oil once again, since it naturally contains no trans fats. Nowadays, over half the items in most American consumers' pantries contain palm oil or its derivatives.15
With continued growth came continued environmental devastation, particularly in South East Asia.16The oil palm industry has been undeniably environmentally, socially, and geopolitically destructive,17 yet there exist methods of production that employ mindful and ethical approaches to oil palm cultivation. Discussions of the destruction and exploitation associated with palm oil are often framed — particularly by brands — as a choice between palm and other crops, e.g., soy. But is simply switching from palm to soy or canola or coconuts going to solve these problems?
A Scapegoat Reconsidered
“It feels impossible to untangle the wrongs that have been committed. Is it possible to acknowledge past wrongs in a way that doesn’t simply recreate them? Can we create relationships in which trade actually can be beneficial to all involved, not just because a company claims it to be?”18
—Ann Armbrecht, writer, anthropologist and director of the Sustainable Herbs Program
Organic Palm Plantations; Natural Habitats
Palm oil is the planet’s highest-yielding vegetable oil, generating 5-10 times more oil per acre than other commodity oils like canola and soybean.19 In terms of function, there is plenty to recommend it. Liquid palm oil, or palm olein, is a frying oil prized for its high smoke point. Solid palm oil, or palm stearin, stands as a non-hydrogenated vegetarian option for spreads and baked goods, and it prevents separation of fats in nut butters.
Beyond these uses, palm oil bears the textural characteristics of hydrogenated corn or soy oils without the harmful trans fats. It is slow to go rancid or oxidize, giving a longer shelf life to whatever product it is blended into. Palm oil is also rich in antioxidants like carotenoid and vitamin E complex tocotrienol compounds, and it can provide a non-petroleum alternative for many cosmetics and lotions.20 Simply put, oil palm is a highly productive super-crop; transitioning away from it to other natural or petroleum oil alternatives will necessarily magnify the environmental issues we already face with palm.
Organic Palm Plantations; Natural Habitats
“The real solution to the oil palm problem is not abstaining from use, but rather recentering the industry around environmental stewardship and the adoption of regenerative farming principles.”
The real solution to the oil palm problem is the same as agriculture’s in general. It is not about abstaining from use, but rather recentering the industry around environmental stewardship and the adoption of regenerative farming principles. Regenerative palm oil farming entails a holistic set of principles: respecting air purity, fostering the soil’s nutrient-density by cultivating regenerative polycultures, advocating for communities at risk of displacement, nurturing rainforest ecosystems, and staunchly defending the rights of farmers.21 This approach is based on the understanding that true, long-term productivity comes from the resilience of healthy and diverse ecosystems.
For example, tending to soil with leguminous cover crops to naturally replenish its nitrogen levels, mulching, and correct compost application can all increase the palm fruit’s yield without disrupting its vigor or organic soundness.22 Beyond creating healthier crops and ecosystems, reconditioning land and soil also offers a meaningful solution to the environmental crisis through increased carbon sequestration.23 The avoidance of burning carbon-rich soils24 while removing the need for chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers further helps reduce new greenhouse gas emissions.25
A future of restorative palm farming also requires ethical companies that are willing to support these practices and refuse to incorporate palm oil into their structures unless it’s rigorously certified. Dr. Bronner’s shows an incredible example of this with the company’s Serendipalm project. When they couldn’t find fair trade and organically grown palm oil to use in their eponymous soaps, they invested in a sister company in Ghana to produce this oil for them. Since 2007, Serendipalm and Dr. Bronner’s have shown that fair trade and organic palm oil can be grown and scaled successfully, all while respecting the local environment and people.
Into the Future
There’s certainly a long way to go yet. As it stands globally, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm (RSPO), which certifies large-scale plantation stock, has only certified 19 percent of palm oil production as sustainable.26 RSPO certification goes in the right direction but provides a flawed and incomplete framework for creating holistic change.27 More palm small producers like Serendipalm and Natural Habitats are working to gain the respected and rigorous certifications of USDA organic, fair trade, Non-GMO, and Regenerative Organic. Simultaneously, more companies are supporting these efforts with their own procurement and consumer campaigns to steer the conversation towards regenerative farming practices and true environmental rehabilitation.
These regenerative practices — which strive for a healthy, lush, and biodiverse future — are already being put into practice to incredible effect around the world in industries from palm cultivation to cattle farming.28 The overall scale of the transition, however, will depend on political and economic will. Rediscovering the environmental potential of plants like oil palm could well be the catalyst needed, and thankfully the change is already underway.
— The Keap Team
Further links to read:
- Making Ethical Palm Oil a Reality | Going Green with Lisa Bronner
- Giving Up Palm Oil Might Actually Be Bad for the Environment | Science | Smithsonian Magazine
- Red Palm Done Right with Natural Habitats in Ecuador!
- Building Bridges Between Farms & Brands Natural Habitats (Palm Done Right)
- Dr. Bronner’s Sources Certified Fair Trade And Organic Palm Kernel Oil From Ecuador