The African Ancestor

18 Jun 2013

We eat it almost every day – in cookies, in ice cream, in chips, in chocolate and so on – or we use it on our bodies in the form of shampoo, soap and cosmetics. Sometimes it fills the fuel tank of our car, in which case we are convinced we are making an eco-friendly choice. Insofar as it is listed generically as vegetable oil or fat, most of the time we consume it unknowingly. It is an invisible but all-pervading presence in our daily lives. What I am referring to is the notorious palm oil.

Easy to produce, versatile and profitable, palm oil has been a desirable commodity on international markets since the Industrial Revolution. Far East Asian countries began investing in the product at the end of the 19th century, and by 1966 they had overtaken palm oil’s home continent, Africa. These days, Indonesia and Malaysia control 90 per cent of global production (over 45 million tons). In the last 20 years, the area of land dedicated to palm oil production has tripled and intensive plantations continue to multiply at frightening speed, using massive quantities of pesticides and devouring millions of hectares of virgin forest. In 1960, 82 per cent of Indonesia was covered by forests, but by 1995 that figure had fallen to 52 per cent.

If things continue at the present rate, Indonesian forests, second only to the Amazon’s, will be completely destroyed by 2022. At that point the quantity of greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere will be close to that of the emissions of the entire planet. According to the Greenpeace Italy report Borneo in fiamme, (Borneo in Flames), this will be a catastrophe.

A commodity without history
After destroying one of the “lungs” of the planet, palm oil sets off on a tortuous journey, undergoing the thousand transformation processes that eventually bring it to our kitchen cupboards. To start with, some of the refining phases remove the gummy part, which can create an unpleasant foam during frying, and bleach the oil (unprocessed palm oil is tomato-red). Then the oil is deodorized and finally separated. The solid part is used as a replacement for margarine in baked goods, while the liquid part is ideal for frying.

During this journey, palm oil loses a number of its defects (oxidized, degraded and malodorous substances), but also all of its healthy substances: carotenoids, vitamin E and so-called vitamin A precursors, which in unprocessed palm oil are 15 times more abundant than in carrots and 100 times more than in tomatoes.
Having lost its color, its smell and its nutrients, this strange product is no longer anything like its African ancestor, which has always played a fundamental role in the culture and diet of many ethnic groups in West Africa. In Guinea-Bissau, for example, a huge number of oil palms grow wild in the forests. Communities pick the large bunches of red berries and, using artisan methods, press them – a long and laborious process. The resulting oil is a thick orange oil that smells of tomato, fruit and spices. Delicious and nutritious, it is a staple ingredient in traditional cooking and is served with meat, fish, vegetables and rice.

One the one hand, we have the original palm oil, a product with a long history, closely tied to a local area, extracted from fruits that ripen in the forest without destroying the forest, rich in vitamins essential in the African grain- and legume-based diet. On the other, we have a product debased by the global market, a soulless commodity that destroys the environment, costs very little and fills our daily meals with saturated fats.

In 2011, the Slow Food Wild Palm Oil Presidium was set up in Guinea-Bissau to promote palm oil production that also protects the local environment and culture. Oil palms originated thousands of years ago in the forests of Western Africa and still today, Guinea-Bissau is home to many wild palm trees. Communities harvest the big bunches of red fruits from the wild trees and process them artisanally, obtaining a dense, orange-colored oil with scents of tomato, fruit and spice. The delicious oil is also nutritious, with a high content of carotenoids and vitamin E.

Serena Milano
General Secretary of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity

First published in the 2012 Slow Food Almanac

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