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Monday, 11 July 2016

What's Up With Palm Oil? Part 1: History

What do ice cream, instant noodles, margarine, lipstick, and soap have in common?

A lot of us have probably used some in the last two weeks, and they also may contain palm oil.

Everything we consume has some sort of impact on the environment and many concerned citizens are eager to find new ways to make more sustainable choices, but honestly my strawberry ice cream cone was not at the top of my list of changes to make for a better world.

Palm oil is a widely-used vegetable oil , but is often produced unsustainable ways and is linked to environmental and social issues.

So what's up with Palm oil?

A (Brief) History of Palm Oil

(To read the full report, see "History of Palm Oil" from The Cambridge World History of Food 2 Volume Boxed Set by Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Coneรจ Ornelas at 

Elaeis guineensis, or the oil palm, is a tree native to West Africa. It was likely a food source for indigenous people in unrecorded history, found in ancient Egyptian tombs, and its use in cooking was written about in the journals of some European travelers from the mid 15th century. Today it remains an ingredient in cherished dishes in cultures around the world; trans fat-free, nutritious, containing antioxidants, and used in making many tasty foods.

Upon expansion trade of the red palm oil got its hands dirty, supplying vessels of the transatlantic slave trade. It was used for candlemaking and as a lubricant for machinery, and the demand for palm oil in Europe increased during the British Industrial Revolution it became a modest exporting trade for farmers in Western Africa while also farming for local usage. It is believed that often oil palm trees were self-seeded, ground about by their own natural processes, even possibly after the 1900s European plantations were established in Southeast Asia and Central Africa.

The demand continued to grow ever larger as palm oil slipped its way into Western foods, especially because of non-hydrogenated margarine. Today a lot of us have been warned about the health risks associated with the process of hydrogenation because of trans fats, and this has been a key point in the common butter vs. margarine debate. However, eventually  it was found that palm oil could be processed in a way that allowed it to be used in margarine without undergoing hydrogenation as other vegetable oils may. 

Although in the 1940's the use of palm oil in Western cultures slowed when there were interruptions in trade with Asia, when butter was in short supply during the war people were often encouraged to use margarine.

From there a grading system was developed and made standard by The Produce Control Board and later Nigerian Oil Palm Produce Marketing Board, which motivated producers to develop better processing techniques.

... Today & the RSPO

Today we are at a point in history where sellers of palm oil have been faced with a new challenge; a challenge ensure it is farmed and produced sustainably. Palm oil has a speckled past, but the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (or RSPO) is now challenging traders of palm oil to make a clean slate, and clean up the act for the future.

This is the RSPO's Mission and Vision statement taken directly from their website:
  • "Advance the production, procurement, finance and use of sustainable palm oil products
  • Develop, implement, verify, assure and periodically review credible global standards for the entire supply chain of sustainable palm oil
  • Monitor and evaluate the economic, environmental and social impacts of the uptake of sustainable palm oil in the market
  • Engage and commit all stakeholders throughout the supply chain, including governments and consumers." -
Basically an RSPO certification compares the means a trader or palm oil with a certain standard so as to minimize negative impacts on the environment, animals, and people.

The oil used in ramen noodles may seem arbitrary, but sustainable or unsustainable farming of it is linked with larger environmental issues that are getting closer to home for people.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of "What's Up With Palm Oil?" to read more about the issues surrounding palm oil, the significance of RSPO, and what each one of us can do to help clean up the act.

In the meantime...
WWF created a satirical trailer, "Unseen" for the drama that is gradually unfolding around unsustainable palm oil. On the surface it may sound far less important and glamorous than the fight against mass deforestation and habitat loss, climate change, or indigenous rights, but the sustainable palm oil is an ingredient affecting all of the above.


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