Palm oil accounts for nearly 1/3 of the global production of vegetable oils, and for a reason, as it has many and versatile usages in our daily lives. Fom a cooking oil, usage in confectionery, a main ingredient in non-dairy creams and margarine, to cosmetics (shampoos, skin care, lipstick), household cleaners, and even in industrial lubricants and biofuels.
Unfortunately, the rising global demand for palm oil comes at an environmental price and at the expense of biodiversity and ecosystems in the countries where it is produced.
Looking at the top producers, Indonesia and Malaysia, bringing in 85% of all palm oil globally produced at the cost of deforestation, climate change, animal cruelty and human rights abuses, palm oil production is in a critical need of sustainable measures. A few examples: currently, a third of all mammal species in Indonesia are considered to be critically endangered, with over 90% of orangutan habitats already destroyed; deforestation led to Indonesia becoming one of the top highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world; palm plantations in South-East Asia are notoriously known for poor working conditions, including child labour – and those are only some examples of the consequences of the unsustainable development resulting from palm oil production.
And while the history of palm oil stretches back to at least 3,000 BC, Europeans got to know about its existence in only the 15th century (the word palm was introduced centuries earlier as a borrowing from Latin), in written records of European travellers to West Africa, with the first British author to record its usage, the armchair traveller, Samuel Purchas, in the second volume of His pilgrimage: History of the World in Sea Voyages and Land Travels by Englishmen and others(1625): “Some [palm trees]..bear Grapes as big as Plumes, of an Orange colour..: those Grapes they peel to the stones, and thereof they make Oil, which they call Palm Oil”.
In the next centuries, the red palm oil (the colour results from the high beta-carotene content) became an important item in the developing trade network between the New and the Old World.
Furthermore, the industrial revolution in Britain created a real palm oil demand for the production of machine lubricants, candles and soups, as recorded in 1870 by John Yeats in his The natural history of commerce : “Palm oil is used in England principally in the manufacture of yellow soap…”
The first European-run plantations appeared in Central and West Africa in the early 19th century, and the occupation of palm oil traders bloomed. The forest and the field (1874) by Henry Astbury Leveson: “My fellow-passengers [on a voyage to West Africa in 1861] may be classed in the following categories..the commercial; traders, usually known as ‘Palm-oil Ruffians’ …”
The first commercial scale plantations emerged in South-East Asia in the 1920s, to lead to a market generating over $65 billion revenue nowadays and to bring up global calls for sustainability measures.
And while replacing palm oil with other vegetable oils would eventually have similar environmental and social impacts and is by no means a solution, customers have the choice to choose products that contain certified sustainable palm oil, produced in accordance with the criteria set by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil standard (RSPO).