Palm Oil

My current project is a book examining the rapid growth of palm oil in the global food system. Native to West Africa, the oil palm tree is a fantastically efficient producer of fatty materials. Palm oil and palm kernels have been staple foods for millenia for those fortunate enough to live near oil palm trees. Until the 20th century, most palm oil in global trade was fit only for soap or lubricating grease. A series of chemical and technical breakthroughs early in the 20th century made it possible to halt the natural forces that quickly spoil fresh palm oil, opening the door to large and growing markets for edible fat in the West. The book will explain how the palm oil industry transformed over the course of two centuries, supplying consumers in Europe, Asia, and America with vital calories and raw materials for consumer products. The book also shows how changing demand for palm oil altered the global landscape of production.  Southeast Asian countries quickly overtook their West African rivals and continue to lead the way in palm oil exports and in new plantings of oil palm trees. Despite being demonized by medical experts as a “bad” fat in the 1980s and condemned by environmentalists in the 2000s, palm oil production and consumption continues to grow. In this book, I highlight how uneven palm oil’s impact on people and the environment has been, contrasting genuine success stories with equally real episodes of ecological destruction and human rights abuses.

Recent publications on palm oil

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

“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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