It's in our instant noodles and chocolate bars, our lipsticks and fuel tanks. But what is palm oil, and how has it come to dominate our lives so completely?
Jocelyn C. Zuckerman travels across four continents and back in time two centuries to find answers about the most widely used vegetable oil on Earth. The obscure oil palm fruit, she discovers, has played an outsized role in history, from greasing the gears of the Second Industrial Revolution to transforming the economies of Malaysia and Indonesia.
But this little fruit also belies an industry of vicious exploitation and ruinous damage to our planet. The multi-billion-dollar palm oil business has been built on stolen land and slave labour, once spurred the colonisation of Nigeria, and has swept away lives and cultures. Fires lit to clear the way for plantations spew carbon emissions to rival those of entire industrialised nations. Mass deforestation so ravaged the landscapes of Southeast Asia that animals like the orangutan now teeter on the brink of extinction.
Combining history, travelogue and investigative reporting, Planet Palm offers an unsettling, urgent look at the global palm oil industry, illuminating what has today become an environmental, public health and human rights disaster.
James Beard Award-winning journalist Jocelyn C. Zuckerman is the former deputy editor of Gourmet. Her articles have appeared in Audubon, The Nation, Vogue and The American Prospect. She graduated with honours from Columbia University's Journalism School and was a fellow with the Alicia Patterson Foundation. She lives in Brooklyn.
"Planet Palm will and should enrage you. [...] Troubling, thoroughly researched and thrilling from beginning to end, [Jocelyn Zuckerman's] book traverses four continents in a broad sweep of the history, power and politics behind palm oil."
– The World Today
"In captivating prose Jocelyn Zuckerman sets out in meticulous, spellbinding detail both the colonial-era historical horrors and the trail of modern-day destruction associated with the palm oil industry worldwide. This book will change not just how you shop, but how you see the world."
– Mark Lynas, author of Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency
"A carefully researched and gripping book. We cannot tell the story of today's world without that of colonialism, and we cannot tell the story of colonialism without that of palm oil – this is the story of palm oil."
– Joshua Virasami, author of How to Change It
"Jocelyn Zuckerman takes us on a troubling, time-travelling adventure [...] Today palm oil, [with] its intrinsic links to colonisation and slavery, has become ubiquitous in our consumerism culture. Sadly, its non-durable exploitation [...] has had terrible consequences. Not the least among them are global-scale land grabbing and a rapid degradation of our planet."
– Pierre Thiam, New York City-based chef and co-founder of Yolele Foods
"Lively and intriguing [...] Planet Palm will make you look very differently at the items in your kitchen and bathroom – and at the persistence of poverty and hunger in parts of the world that should be enjoying plenty."
– Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost and Bury the Chains
"Jocelyn Zuckerman has crossed the globe and looked back in time to show us how much the appetite for palm oil profit has cost us in human suffering, environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity. This extraordinary work of investigative journalism will make you cry and gnash your teeth. It will fill you with rage. Essential reading for everyone who wonders if their food choices matter."
– Ruth Reichl, chef, food writer and restaurant critic
"Man-eating pythons, rogue elephants, organised poachers, armed gangsters, corrupt politicians, murderous executives, modern-day slave owners: Zuckerman encounters all of them in this, the first exhaustive investigation of the world's most environmentally damaging product – something most of us use every day without even knowing it."
– Barry Estabrook, author of Just Eat and Tomatoland
"After reading Planet Palm [...] I now understand that oil palms represent the darkest underside of late-stage capitalism. This is an ugly story, compellingly told."
– Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, Emerita, New York University, and author of Unsavory Truth