The history of the palm oil trade in South-East Asia: Is there a sustainable future?

By James Askew

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Palm oil producers receive a lot of bad press. For example, under current cultivation methods, there are a number of negative impacts (i.e., habitat alteration, biodiversity loss) on the Southeast Asian jungle landscape. Interestingly, however, few people know the history of this plant and how it has grown to become one of the most economically significant, yet controversial crops on the planet.

Oil Palm Plantation, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo courtesy: Rhett A. Butler

Currently, palm oil is one of the World’s most important crops with plantations spread across 90 countries located on 3 continents. The oil palm (Elaeis guinesis) is native to the coast of West Africa where it was used as food source for at least 5000 years. When European colonizers arrived in the 15thCentury, the plant was spread around the African continent, and then around the world; a move that would eventually lead the oil palm to becoming one of the most important and influential commodities used by humans today.

The oil palm’s migration to Southeast Asia has undoubtedly changed the course of history in this part of the world, along with the very nature of the plant itself. Finding itself in a new country, one with optimal soils, climate conditions, and no natural pests or diseases, the plant thrived, growing faster, larger and oilier than its African counterparts. This new variety is spectacularly productive in comparison to any other vegetable oil with an annual yield of 3.6 tons per hectare, some 6 times higher than any other (non-palm) oil. Yet, while the industry spread throughout Africa and Southeast Asia in the early 19th century, the oil was not exported to Europe due to quality issues that made it undesirable for Western palates.

In fact, palm oil only became a viable crop for exportation after World War II. The process of hydrogenation allowed for its use in a solid fat form (which virtually never spoils). Moreover, advances in milling, refining, and fractioning techniques were developed, advancing palm oil from local crop to commercial oil; one usable for a wide range of food items, and at a significantly cheaper rate than its nearest competitor. In short, the fruit of the oil palm suddenly became capable of providing everything humans could want from edible oil.

Global Palm Oil production. Image: USDA

Not surprisingly, the largest producers of palm oil are located in Southeast Asia with Indonesia and Malaysia accounting for more than 90% of global palm oil produced each year. Clearly, this crop plays an important and ever increasing role in the economies of both countries. In Indonesia, about 14 million people make a living from oil palm directly with current production utilizing ~40% of available forest resources. In contrast, Malaysian oil palm cultivation employs about 1 million people, yet production appears to be on the rise since Malaysia has a significant amount of land resources available for expansion.

Despite the economic significance of this crop, on both a national level and to indigenous Southeast Asian populations, the oil palm industry is renowned for negatively impacting some of the most biologically diverse jungle landscapes (e.g., Borneo, Sumatra) in the world. Rare and endangered species in this region include hundreds of plant species and a wide variety of endemic animals ranging from orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and the Sumatran elephant. My hope is for a sustainable future, one that takes into account both economic and ecological concerns, but I fear the economic boon will see this incredible plant taking a central role in humankind’s destruction of some of the most beautiful and diverse habitats on Earth.

About the author:James Askew is working towards his doctorate degree in Human and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Southern California’s Jane Goodall Center. He studies wild orangutans in Kalimantan, Borneo, with a focus on the evolution of male vocalizations and their role in mediating social and reproductive relationships.

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