Palm Oil

Palm Oil: History and Resources

Palm oil is everywhere today: in our food, soaps and cosmetics, inks and plastics; it even powers vehicles. The world supply of palm oil nearly doubled over the last ten years, and it’s grown by double or more every decade since 1970. Plantations growing oil palm, the tree that produces palm oil, cover as much land as the entire state of Kansas. Important as it is, the oil palm industry has attracted a negative reputation, associated with the impending extinction in the wild of beloved species like the orangutan and the destruction of rich tropical forests and carbon-sequestering peatlands.

Oil Palm: a Global History shows how we got to this point. Based on archival research on four continents, the book follows the oil palm through over 500 years of history. From a luxury good riding alongside captives in the transatlantic slave trade, to a novel industrial substitute, up to its roles today as a staple raw ingredient, the quest for palm oil reshaped the world.

Available June 2021 from the University of North Carolina Press

Gallery: Oil Palm Landscapes
Gallery: Making Palm Oil

Recent publications on palm oil

Please contact me if you would like copies of any of my publications for personal or classroom use.

Humans and Other Pollinators in the Oil Palm Plantation Complex, Arcadia Spring 2021, no. 8

  • When humans brought oil palms to Southeast Asia, they left behind the tree’s most important pollinators. This article shows how the plantation system turned humans into the oil palm’s key pollinator species, before the introduction of the oil palm weevil (Elaeidobius kamerunicus) in the 1980s.

“Shallow roots: The early oil palm industry in Southeast Asia, 1848–1940.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 51, no. 4 (2020), 538-560.

  • In most narratives, the beginning of the oil palm industry in Southeast Asia boils down to entrepreneurial spirit, scientific research, and good fortune. The colonial context in which the industry emerged barely figures in the story. This article argues that colonial power was critical, providing access to land and labor that proved more important than plant selection, capital, or technology. The plantation model pushed the region ahead of Africa as the leading exporter of palm oil by the late 1930s, but its future was in doubt as the Depression and Second World War shattered the colonial order.

“Smallholders and Machines in the West African Palm Oil Industry, 1850- 1950,” African Economic History, 46, no. 1 (2018), 69-103.

  • Why did it take so long for African palm-oil producers to start using machines? This article dives into the history of machines in West Africa. Early machines were sometimes badly designed or too expensive. At least two West African men designed their own machines, but these too failed to catch on. Africans had good reasons not to use even the best machines. “Traditional” methods of extracting oil were in fact quite economical. Men could take advantage of labor from their wives and children to make oil and crack palm kernels cheaply. Until the 1950s, it did not make sense for most producers to use even simple machines.

“Imbibing the Lesson of Defiance”: Oil palms and Alcohol in Colonial Ghana, 1900-1940. Environmental History 23, no. 2 (2018), 293-317.

  • When colonial officials cracked down on alcohol imports in West Africa, many drinkers turned to a traditional beverage: palm wine, made from the sap of palm trees. Palm wine can be tapped from the bud of an oil palm or from a hole cut in the trunk. The first method kills the flower and prevents any fruit from growing until a new bud forms. The second method kills the tree entirely, but gives a lot more wine. In Ghana, most drinkers preferred the stronger wine from the trunk. The colonial government wanted Ghanaians to export more palm oil and palm kernels, but instead they were cutting down their trees to make wine. Some Ghanaians portrayed palm wine as their “patrimony,” a right to enjoy alcohol made from Ghana’s own natural resources. The government tried to regulate palm-felling, but with little success. The result was the steady thinning–though not the total destruction–of Ghana’s palm groves.

“From ‘Hogless Lard’ to ‘Smart Balance’: Technology and the Globalization of Fat” (ASEH conference paper, 2015)

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