‘Planet Palm’ review: The palm oil’s curse on life and the environment

Plantations have been built on stolen land and harsh labour, sweeping away cultures and devastating Southeast Asia, argues a new book

Published - February 26, 2022 04:35 pm IST

There are moments in life when we have to hold our assumptions to a deeper scrutiny. That is what award-winning journalist Jocelyn Zuckerman has succeeded through her groundbreaking research, compelling the reader to examine the connections between the choices we make at the grocery store that keeps the planet under siege. That palm oil’s overwhelming presence in soap and lipstick to baby formula and dog feed is the cause for persistence of poverty and hunger in other parts of world would unsettle any sane mind. 

Having insinuated itself into every facet of our lives over the past few decades, palm oil alone counts for one-third of total global vegetable oil consumption. With annual purchase of 9.2 million metric tonnes in 2019, India is the world’s number-one palm oil importer. Far from being a boon to the world economy, the multi-billion dollar palm oil business has been a bane argues Zuckerman. Our growing appetite has worsened the situation — more forests are cleared for new plantations, forcible evictions have escalated human sufferings; and enhanced carbon emissions remain the resultant outcome. Despite its long-term health and environmental implications, the worrisome aspect is how a lesser-known oil suddenly became an indispensable consumer product.

Zuckerman unearths palm oil’s troubled colonial legacy to draw a parallel with its current fetishism, promoted by ruthless industrialisation of modern food systems. With multiple uses and an economic life of a quarter century, palm oil’s productive potential could not escape the attention of maverick George Goldie, credited for securing Nigeria for the Crown, and quirky businessman William Lever, for establishing oil-palm plantations in the Congo. The story of palm oil is the story of colonialism, which is sinister in its present-day design involving armed gangsters, murderous executives, and corrupt politicians, she writes. 

Junk food

Planet Palm is not only a disturbing expose on contemporary ills associated with the palm oil trade but holds unsuspecting consumers complicit in the corporate monopolisation of a $65 billion global business. Trade liberalisation has contributed to this inconspicuous consumption, easing crossborder peddling of ultra-processed junk foods by multinational companies. “Part of the problem,” explains Zuckerman, “is the sort of nutrient-deficient, heavily processed junk that all of this cheap oil enables.” And land planted with oil palm across the developing world, an estimated 104,000 square miles, is land which is diverted from growing healthy foods. Having travelled across four continents, from Indonesia to Honduras and from Liberia to India, the author is unsparing in her revelations, providing disturbing evidence on the world’s most environmentally damaging product — something most of us unknowingly use every day. 

It is an extraordinary work of investigative journalism that will make the discerning reader rush to look differently at the items stacked in her kitchen and bathroom. The collective power of consumer choices is critical to turning things around as incidences of violence against those opposing the industry has grown — half of 212 eco-defenders reported killed in 2019 were opposing palm oil interests. So intimately linked are national economies (those of Malaysia and Indonesia) to the palm oil industry that even the governments remain obliged to defend the commodity. 

Shocking move

What could be more shocking than the fact that France was diplomatically forced to drop plans for a tax on palm oil in 2016, as the Indonesian government had made it clear that passage of the law might result in the execution of a French citizen then being held in Jakarta on drug-trafficking charges. 

Zuckerman provides a compelling account of the darkest underside of late-stage capitalism. While there is no denying that our food systems need overhauling, equally important for consumers is to raise their voices to demand more transparency. She leaves the reader with an optimist note to wean ourselves away from palm oil by using synthetic versions of the oil and convincing companies to adopt no-deforestation policies in their production codes.

Planet Palm; Jocelyn C. Zuckerman, Hurst & Co, ₹1,606.

The reviewer is an independent writer, researcher and academic.

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