Pondering palm oil


On the surface, it seems that environmental justice should be one of those no-brainer, win-win concepts that everyone can support. Look a little deeper, however, and enacting environmental justice can become impossibly complicated and divisive. Few things exemplify this paradox more than the case of palm oil. In recent years this seemingly innocuous, rather boring-sounding substance has been the subject of both celebration and derision by environmentalists, human rights activists, and nutritionists, not to mention corporations and governments.

Why should we in the American West be concerned about palm oil, when it is grown exclusively in distant tropical climates, and is not generally available for home use in its basic form outside ethnic and specialized markets? For one, it has found its way into an astonishing array of common household products and foods. Some estimates say nearly half of such products contain it, one of them being the Milky Way bar I just ate.

You may remember several years back when we were all cautioned to avoid “tropical oils” because of their high concentration of saturated fats. Palm oil was considered a main culprit, along with coconut oil. Well, the saturated fat part hasn’t changed. Newer nutrition science, however, has partially acquitted unrefined palm oil due to its antioxidant carotinoids and other potentially beneficial properties. It also doesn’t contain “trans fats,” making it an appealing substitute for previously ubiquitous bad-boy hydrogenated oils. As if this wasn’t enough, its prospects as a bio fuel are also promising, due to the high productivity of the oil palm compared to seed-oil plants. Finally, add all this to the economies of the emerging nations in the equatorial regions where it thrives, and you have the potential for an environmental justice slam dunk: Sustainable crops that support, feed, and (cleanly) fuel people and nations. What could be bad about that?

Several years ago while on the shuttle for a raft trip on the Savegre River in Costa Rica, we drove through mile after mile of dark, silent palm groves. There are several varieties of palm in Arizona where I live, but I didn’t recognize this one, so I asked our guide. He explained to us that these were oil palms, and described how the fruits were crushed and processed. Having read about some of the grim history of exploitation and environmental degradation associated with United Fruit Company’s Costa Rican banana empire, I wondered whether this was a case of different palm tree, same old problems.  The guide assured me that this was mostly not the case; many groves were now owned by cooperatives of locals, and there were stricter environmental regulations in place. Still, as I looked at row after row go by, I couldn’t help comparing them to the cloud forest region I’d hiked through earlier in the week, which was crowded with hundreds of species of tree, vine, and shrub, and cacophonous with the sounds of birds, insects, and mammals. By contrast, the palm plantations were a typical monoculture: tidy, shady, and very quiet, even at mid-morning. 

Oil palm plantations now dominate formerly-forested landscapes in many tropical countries. Photo courtesy Flickr user Marufish.

I kept these thoughts to myself as we drove. A tourist, even an “eco-tourist,” can hardly lecture citizens of the countries she visits about the finer points of ecological balance when her own country gets it so wrong so often. Later, however, while researching for this post, I ran across the American Palm Oil Council’s slick website, which rather hyperbolically proclaims the oil “Nature’s Gift to the World.” To read through the site and others like it, you’d think there were no possible downsides to this miraculous commodity, but you’d be mistaken. Recent analyses, like this one, while cautiously optimistic, point out that rainforests are being sacrificed for palm oil, just as they are for logging and were for bananas. A monoculture is a monoculture everywhere, and brings with it the usual problems associated with lack of species diversity. So should I feel guilty about that Milky Way (besides for the usual reasons)? Well, yes and no. The jury’s still out. That’s the hard part.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University, where she is also the Associate Director of Writing Programs. Outside academia, she’s an avid rafter, kayaker, and horsewoman who also attempts to garden. When possible, she escapes the Phoenix metro area for an undisclosed location in Southeastern Utah.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.