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Palm oil is ubiquitous – yet the farming of palm oil trees is environmentally disastrous

“Planet Palm”
author Jocelyn Zuckerman

By MARTIN ZEILIG Palm oil has been criticized by many, including scientists, activists and organizations such as Greenpeace and the Palm Oil Investigations, notes online information.
In a report published by the BBC, environmentalists argue that the farming of oil palm trees is having damaging effects on the environment.

“Palm oil production and deforestation go hand in hand,” says the report. “To build palm oil plantations, producers clear trees in tropical rainforests, destroying the biodiverse regions. Deforestation is a significant contributor to climate change; when the forests are lost, carbon is released into the atmosphere, causing global warming.”

In her book, author Jocelyn Zuckerman spent years travelling the world, “from Liberia to Indonesia, India to Brazil” covering the human and environmental impacts of “this poorly understood plant.”
Her book, “Planet Palm,” is a compelling blend of history, science, politics, and food as experienced by the people whose lives have been impacted by, as she states, “this hidden ingredient.”

Joceln C. Zuckerman is the former editor of Gourmet, articles editor of OnEarth, and executive editor of Modern Farmer. An alumna of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a former fellow with the Washington DC-based Alicia Patterson Foundation, she has written for Fast Company, the American Prospect, Vogue, and many other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, with her husband and two children.

Ms. Zuckerman agreed to an email interview with The Jewish Post & News.

JP&N: Why did you decide to write this book? How long did it take to write?
JZ: It started with a trip I took a few years ago to Liberia, the West African country founded by freed American slaves. I’d gone there to write a magazine article about land grabs. This was the trend, in the aftermath of the food and fuel crises of 2008, of agribusiness and investment banks buying up huge swathes of fertile land in faraway places where governance is maybe not all that strong and traditional land rights are easy to exploit.

When I got down on the ground, I found a landscape that was completely barren. Two palm oil companies had cut down the rainforest in order to plant oil palm for miles and miles. In one village, a scattering of mud-block and thatch houses located inside an oil-palm concession owned by a Singapore-based company, a 50-year-old father of seven described how the outsiders had shown up and bulldozed the town in which he’d spent his entire life.
Other villagers talked of how the company had destroyed their crops and gravesites, polluted their streams, and run them out of their homes. I was so disturbed by the destruction I saw in Liberia that when I got home I dove into the topic, trying to learn everything I could about it. And I was fairly astonished by what I found. It turns out that palm oil has played an outsize role in shaping the world as we know it, from spurring the colonization of Nigeria and greasing the gears of the Second Industrial Revolution to transforming the societies of Southeast Asia and beyond.

“Following the plant’s journey over the decades,” I write in my book’s introduction, “served as a sort of master class in everything from colonialism and commodity fetishism to globalization and the industrialization of our modern food system.”
From the time I decided to write the book to the time I finished was about five years, but I was also doing other magazine work during that time.

JP&N: What has been the effect of palm plantations and the palm oil industry on the natural environment, and the economies of affected countries?
JZ: It’s had a profound effect on tropical forests and biodiversity. The landscapes of Indonesia and Malaysia in particular (the two countries account for 85 percent of global production) have been ravaged. In the last two decades alone, Malaysia has lost 20 million acres of tree cover.
The oil palm grows best at ten degrees to the north and south of the equator, which is a swathe of land that corresponds with the planet’s tropical rainforests. And tropical forests, though they cover less than ten percent of Earth’s land surface, support more than half of the world’s biodiversity.
The continued razing of the rainforest for oil-palm development means that creatures like the orangutan, the Sumatrian rhino and elephant, in addition to hundreds of bird species, are losing more and more of their natural habitat.
The palm oil industry is largely responsible for the fact that more than 100,000 orangutans have been wiped off the planet in the last 15 years. In 2019, hundreds of international experts issued a report finding that global biodiversity is declining faster than at any other time in human history, with one million species already facing extinction, many within decades, unless the world takes transformative action.

Most of the folks where I reported from in Southeast Asia, Central America, and Africa used to work as farmers supporting themselves and their families by growing food. But as more and more of the land has been planted with oil palm—and often the water polluted by agrichemicals—they have no food and no means of supporting themselves and their families.
There’s also a connection to pandemics. Something like 75 percent of today’s emerging infectious diseases originate in animals, and 60 per cent of those can spread directly from animals. Over the past few decades, the number of such animal-to-human transmissions has skyrocketed.
A third of these new diseases can be linked directly to deforestation and agricultural intensification, most of it involving tropical rainforests. So, cutting down these forests doesn’t just deprive orangutans and rhinos of their homes, it also sends virus-carrying wildlife like bats in search of new habitat, forcing them into closer contact with humans.

There is also well-documented evidence of forced and child labor on plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. Malaysia, in particular, relies on hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from countries like Indonesia, India, and Bangladesh to harvest its oil-palm fruits. The workers often are brought in by recruiters who lie to them about good jobs in hotels and restaurants and then confiscate their passports and traffic them to remote plantations.

Last year, the United States announced that it would block shipments of palm oil from two major Malaysian producers over allegations of forced labor, including concerns over child workers and physical and sexual abuse on plantations. And women on three continents told me that they’d been made sick from the pesticides they were forced to handle. Many have suffered from collapsed uteruses as a result of carrying the heavy sacks of fruit.
Some made the equivalent of $2 a day, after working for decades. Workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, like those on other continents, complained of skin irritation, blisters, and eye damage resulting from the chemicals they handle. Of 43 male employees interviewed by Human Rights Watch in 2019, 27 said that they had become impotent since starting the job. A review published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2019 found that male oil-palm workers in Malaysia were suffering from widespread abnormal sperm.

In 2015, an extended episode of haze linked to fires on oil-palm plantations led to an estimated 100,000 premature deaths in Southeast Asia. (A few weeks into the crisis, government officials ordered the evacuation of all babies under the age of six months.)
As yet untallied is the long-term health damage caused by the fires. The fires proved so difficult to extinguish in part because of the unique composition of the terrain on which so many of them burned. Indonesia is home to Earth’s largest composition of tropical peatlands—soils formed over thousands of years through the accumulation of organic matter—and when farmers and palm oil companies drain and burn that land as a precursor to planting, massive quantities of carbon dioxide escape into the atmosphere. The annual carbon emissions from Indonesia’s peatlands rival those of the entire state of California.

JP&N: What else would you like our readers to know?
JZ: Trade liberalization and economic growth in middle-income countries over the last two decades has led to a surge of oil flowing across international borders, where it’s enabled the production of ever-greater amounts of deep-fried snacks and ultra-processed foods, benefiting multinational companies like Unilever, PepsiCo, Grupo Bimbo, Nestle, Cargill, and others. Rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are soaring in India and in the poorer countries where the multinational corporations that peddle such junk are focused on growing their markets.

Though most of us tend to blame sugar for the world’s weight woes, refined vegetable oils have added far more calories to the global diet in the last half-century than any other food group. A few months ago, a new study headed by researchers at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine found that palmitic acid, a fatty acid found in palm oil, alters the cancer genome increasing the likelihood that cancer will spread.
The industry is also impacting health and nutrition at its source. Studies have shown that diets among indigenous peoples in Indonesia are healthier than those of people working and living on the fringes of plantations, rather than in the forests as they’ve traditionally done.

In my book, I trace the political forces and dark money at work behind the scenes of the $65 billion business—from permits issued from inside jail cells and owners hidden behind offshore shell companies to long-dead villagers signing away their rights and elders hoodwinked by sweet-talking executives.

In 2019, the World Health Organization compared the tactics used by the palm oil industry to those employed by the tobacco and alcohol lobbies. It recently emerged that a Malaysian campaign accusing industry critics of being “neo-colonialists” was in fact the (very-highly-compensated) work of a Washington, DC–based lobbying firm, one whose previous clients include Exxon and the former Burmese military junta.
PepsiCo, the parent company of Frito-Lay, uses a lot of palm oil in its snacks. Activists have traced that oil to environmental destruction and labor abuses—what they call “conflict palm oil”. There have also been campaigns targeting Nestle, Kellogg’s, and Cargill for environmental and/or labor abuses linked to their supply chains.
They’ve definitely gotten some traction, and there have been reforms in the industry, though there is still a ways to go. Across the globe, those who have dared to speak out against the industry, whether environmental activists, laborers, peasant farmers, or investigative journalists, have often been met with violence.

Read labels. Reach out to the companies that use a lot of palm oil (PepsiCo, Dunkin Donuts, Unilever, Grupo Bimbo, etc) and ask them where they source it and how they can be sure that there wasn’t deforestation or land-grabbing or other labor or human rights abuses involved. Go to the websites of the Rainforest Action Network, Mighty Earth, Global Witness, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace, and get involved in their palm oil campaigns.

“Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up In Everything—And Endangered The World”
By Jocelyn C. Zuckerman
(The New Press 335 pg.$27.99 U.S.)

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