Palm Oil

My current project is a book examining the rapid growth of palm oil in the global food system. Native to West Africa, the oil palm tree is a fantastically efficient producer of fatty materials. Palm oil and palm kernels have been staple foods for millenia for those fortunate enough to live near oil palm trees. Until the 20th century, most palm oil in global trade was fit only for soap or lubricating grease. A series of chemical and technical breakthroughs early in the 20th century made it possible to halt the natural forces that quickly spoil fresh palm oil. The book will explain how this opened the door to a massive expansion in palm oil consumption in Europe, Asia, and America. More importantly,  will analyze how the growing market for palm oil encouraged farmers and investors around the world to plant oil palms. Southeast Asian countries quickly overtook their West African rivals and continue to lead the way in palm oil exports and in new plantings of oil palm trees. Despite being demonized by medical experts as a “bad” fat, palm oil production and consumption continues to grow, producing new fears about the effect of oil palm plantations on tropical forests and other ecosystems.

Recent publications on palm oil

(in progress) “The Fanti Palm Oil Machine: 150 Years of Failure in the Search for ‘Appropriate Technology'” (article, expected publication 2017)

“Food and Drink: Palm Oil vs. Palm Wine in Colonial Ghana.” Commodities of Empire working paper no. 25 (2016).

“Oil Boom: African farmers, western chemists, and the edible fats revolution.” (expected publication 2017-2018, read draft here.)

“From ‘Hogless Lard’ to ‘Smart Balance’: Technology and the Globalization of Fat” (ASEH conference paper, 2015)