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any Europeans and North Americans encounter palm oil through its explicit absence. Upmarket brands of biscuits, make up, and peanut butter advertise their products as ‘palm oil free’, responding to more than a decade of campaigns centred on the environmental impacts of palm oil plantations. Buying products containing (unsustainable) palm oil has come to feel morally wrong for the ‘ethical’ consumer. Biotech start-ups even promise that soon enough microorganisms will manufacture ‘guilt-free’ palm-oil-like substitutes

We pause to think about how people and corporations are attempting to realize these moral dreams of a life purified from palm oil. Using palm oil as an ‘inter-scalar vehicle’ (Hecht 2018), we follow it across space and time, from seed to oil and its market, in order to engage with the multifaceted reality of this controversial commodity. This research uncovers how dreams of purity - and its corollaries of homogeneity, order, efficiency and control – are not only found among those attempting either to eradicate palm oil or make it sustainable. They are also found among those who seek to make improved palms and oils that might offer cheaper, higher yields, and greater efficiency. We therefore trace dreams of purity as they occur in the various situations in which palm oil is encountered: breeding and planting, oil refining, sustainable certification, and most recently, engineering biology. In human desires for both its presence and its absence, palm oil brings dreams of purity with it. These are dreams, because purity is only ever a normative horizon, an ideal, a constant battle against impurity, disorder, waste and unruliness.

In our exploration of palm oil, we use the term purity to describe diverse aspirations articulated by a range of different actors. Often purity is an explicitly sought-after quality for these actors, while in other cases we identify moments where purity appears as a more indirect value underlying discourses on palm oil. Our ad hoc exploration shows that both when purity is above and below the surface of discourses on palm oil, it is a shifting signifier – the values it conveys change according to context. We examine how dreams of purity intersect with palm oil in three main areas – genetically pure palms, chemically pure oils, and ethically pure markets – and outline the traveling meanings that are created. By examining such shifts, we posit that notions of purity have shaped ideas of genetic purity that were developed alongside eugenics; they shaped the search for chemical processes that could purify the oil in the interests of making it more marketable around the world, and have in turn shaped economic and nutritional inequalities; and they now mask how sustainable labels can be a foil for ongoing environmental and social violence. Looking at purity as value is a way for us to link all these processes in which palm oil is encountered in its various forms, adding to our critical analysis of this controversial crop and its moral economies. 

A substitute for palm oil? Culture of CS-183 Picochlorum atomus from the Australian National Algae Culture Collection (ANACC - image Tony Rees). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Seed: genetic purity

Today, most of the palm oil produced and consumed globally comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. The African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) was introduced to Southeast Asia in the early 20th Century by Europeans who repurposed the infrastructures - research institutions, Singapore’s financial hub, port technologies – that were already in place for rubber (Giacomin 2018). This moved the palm oil trade away from West Africa and its semi wild groves of oil palms that supplied Europe throughout the 19th Century. Setting up plantations in Southeast Asia involved replacing heterogeneous landscapes with ‘scalable’ uniform blocks of palms, ready for multiplication (Tsing 2012, 507). But to create the perfect, scalable plantation, the oil palm itself had to be optimized through genetic selection. This relied on colonial hubris.

Types of Elaeis guineensis with thinner-shelled fruits yielding more oil had already been isolated by African growers when Europeans began research on how to cultivate this quality. In 1910, French explorer-botanist A. Chevalier was already calling for cultivating improved palms. Though he acknowledged the cultivation methods of African growers in this process, he saw the intervention of ‘the European’ as necessary to make this ‘rational and truly rewarding financially’ (read: rewarding ‘for colonial powers’) (Chevalier 1910, 83, 3 our translation). Similarly, I.H. Burkill, British botanist and then director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, noted that African growers had ‘imperfectly isolated races with less and less shell’. But to him, the process was ‘heedless’: deemed valuable only as it could provide ‘an interesting foundation for skilled [read: ‘British’] selection-works to build on’ (Burkill [1935] 1966, 1:910). By the mid 20th Century, research stations dedicated to the improvement of oil palms had been established in the British Malay peninsula, Sumatra, (Netherlands Indies), West Africa (British and French-controlled territories) and the Belgian Congo. The skill of rational improvement was framed as the exclusive domain of the white, western, savvy, male traveller-scientist.

The search for a pure, thin-shelled variety of oil palm draws attention to the concept of varieties within species, whereby living beings became conceptualized as materials with isolable traits (on the rise of breeding and genetics, Bonneuil 2019). As colonial botanists believed they were the only ones capable of improving the palms, they traced the genetic histories of specific types, seeking to create purebred palms using the pedigree method. There, the term ‘race’ was, at times, used to refer to tree crops as a synonym for ‘varieties’, as well as to speak about people (Burkill talks of ‘races of men’ [1935] 1966, 1:910). This is a reminder that botanical history has been implicated with the racialized classification of human beings. Burkill and his contemporaries wrote in an intellectual context that was spawning eugenicists. They grounded racist, ableist and classist arguments in what they saw as the language of scientific authority, with the troubling impact of making their work seem a ‘modern’ way to discuss social problems (Subramaniam 2014, 22). 

Natural history’s relationship with biological misconceptions of ‘race’ goes back even longer. When the 18th Century Swedish botanist Linnaeus developed taxonomy, he also produced a method for classifying people according to what he saw as four distinct races. This ‘race-producing activity’ served to reify pre-conceived notions of difference, and propelled race – and racial purity – as ways to divide humankind (Gilroy 2000, 17, 35). ‘Race’ became used as a justification for slavery and abuse, segregation, and to explain away health disparities (Watkins 2012). Such damaging ideas of racialised construction of isolated, identifiable, and innate human characteristics continue to be articulated today (Allen & Jobson 2016, 132, discussing the pioneering work of Haitian anthropologist Anténor Firmin; see also TallBear 2013).

In botany, fears of polluting admixture and dreams of purity led to a focus on the isolation of various desired genetic traits through techniques of ‘selfing’ (self-breeding) (Hartigan 2017, 89-94). In our palm oil story, as colonial officials and botanists attempted to make seeds of Elaeis ‘breed true’ with the characteristics they desired, they were constantly confounded by its seeming inability to do so. In the end, the thin-shelled palm, Tenera – the most popularly grown version today - proved to be a hybrid, a cross between the most common thick-shell Dura and the rare shell-less but often-sterile Pisifera – something Nigerian growers had long been aware of (Zeven 1972).

Perfecting this ‘natural oil machine’, to borrow the term of agronomists (Rival and Levang 2014, 7), is today an ongoing project. Indonesia and Malaysia are at the forefront of it, and again discourses on purity prevail. In her ethnography of palm breeders and nursery workers in an Indonesian palm oil conglomerate, Chao describes how seedlings are made to grow in plastic bags on disease-free soil to avoid cross-contamination. Scientists constantly oppose ‘elite plants’ to ‘rogues’: killing rogues is justified to protect the rest of the population (Chao 2018, 437). Chao’s informants talk with much excitement of the day science will produce the ideal plant: extremely productive, slow growing (to facilitate harvest), resistant to all sorts of pest and climatic variations, and giving high quality oil. This quest for the ‘ideotype’ – like the quests of the colonial botanists - is founded on a dream. It is a dream of purity in which only perfect palms would be allowed to grow, live and (re)produce in the mode of the scalable plantation. 

But in the plantation model, ideals of purity are challenged by the feral effects of ecological simplification, as pests and pathogens find a welcoming landscape in the neat rows of a monocrop culture. Oil palms are no exception. In West Africa, the soil fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. elaeidis spreads well in industrial plantations, penetrating the plants through their roots and eventually often killing more than half of the palms growing on infected soils. In contrast, semi wild groves are rarely attacked. Breeding programmes in the region have focused on developing resistance to the fungus (De Franqueville & Diabaté 1995). In South East Asia, the fungus has not gained a foothold so far, but constitutes an ongoing threat because seeds can carry it, as attested by a few outbreaks recorded in South America in the 1980s. Therefore, strict quarantine measures are in place when genetic material is imported from the centre of the palm’s genetic diversity. Once again, purity is an unrealisable dream – the regimented plantation is in fact unable to be purified despite attempts at control.

Oil palm seed. Source: Pxhere commons

Oil: chemical purity

The history of oil refining is shaped by a similar horizon. In West African cooking, the oil derived from Elaeis Guineensis is valued for its nutty taste and bright red appearance. The high free fatty acids content in oils processed using traditional methods, which involve fermentation, gives the oil high acidity and a valued ‘bite’ (Corley and Tinker 2016, 468). Yet early colonial botanists were dismissive of local oil making techniques. For British botanist H.N. Ridley, Burkill’s predecessor at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, African processing was ‘defective in every stage’, as the fermentation makes a darker oil with ‘imperfections’ in it (Ridley 1907, 39). Burkill, too, described African oils as ‘badly, often abominably, prepared’, producing oil that is ‘nearly black - the coffee oil of the market’ (Burkill 1966[1935] 1:908). To William Lever - one of the founders of the global trade in palm oil - the oil derived from the palms on his infamous concessions in the Belgian Congo was therefore no more than ‘cheap grease’ suitable only to be made into soap (Nworah 1972). Yet it was these local oil-processing techniques that in fact enabled the larger-scale production that facilitated the palm oil trade’s growth.

Indeed, plant fats such as palm oil are unsaturated, making them more vulnerable to rancidity and oxidisation. This made it both difficult to transport, and unsuitable as a foodstuff for European and American palates, which demanded ‘bland, pale fats’ (Robins 2018, 320-321). Palm oil could thus only begin its vast-scale proliferation as a foodstuff beyond West Africa once techniques of chemical purification were developed. In this, the work of the German chemist, M. E. Chevreul was crucial. He identified palm oils’ potential for hydrogenation in 1902, allowing unsaturated acids to be transformed into saturated acids (Robins 2018, 329). Chevreul saw ‘fats not as natural substances with a singular essence, but as mere assortments of chemicals’. The chemicals within palm oil were released from their relation to the plant itself: ‘oleic acid was oleic acid, whether it came from an olive or a pig’ - or from an oil palm (Robins 2018, 321). This ‘chemical gaze’ (Landecker 2019) made all sorts of substitutions possible: hydrogenation had the effect of stripping away the odors and flavors of the oil. The chemical development of this purer, blander-tasting, invisible oil meant that the oil now had many more food purposes, replacing other kinds of fats imperceptibly. This massively increased European demands for the oil and facilitated the expansion of colonial trade: the imports of palm oil to the UK grew by 160 percent between 1866 and 1906 (Robins 2018, 318). Today, bleaching and sterilising are used to further remove palm oil’s free fatty acids (Tan et al. 2009).

The value of ‘purity’ in the sense of bland, odorless oil contributed to its potential as a substitute. The result is visible today in European supermarkets for those who can read the label and see that all kinds of products, from soap to detergent to ice creams to instant noodles, contain this imperceptible oil. The quest for an odorless and flavorless source of fats and creaminess means that palm oil is used to replace more expensive ingredients. The brand ‘FIT’ market their ‘Fat-Filled Milk Powder’, which may contain up to 50 percent palm oil, as providing ‘advantages’ like ‘easy manipulation and storage’, ‘cost-efficiency’ and an ‘easy and regular supply’. These food substitutes are sold to manufacturers creating ultra-processed products for people with low incomes, indicating how notions of ‘purity’ beget nutritional inequality. But the globally traded, imperceptible and cheap fat obtained from improved palms has not replaced artisanal palm oil. The red, flavoured oil is still very much part of West African cuisine. In Abidjan, for example, the origin of the seeds matters to consumers because it changes the properties of the oil, its texture, colour, taste, and price: the best oil comes from semi wild groves (Cheyns 2001). No perfect seed, as dreamed by plant geneticists, would be able to satisfy those who, knowingly and knowledgeably, eat palm oil.

Market: ethical purity?

In recent years, brands like Nestlé, L’Oréal and Unilever, have been trying to purify their palm oil-based products in another way: by going deforestation-free (Dauvergne 2017). Palm oil plantations are now talked about as a major driver of tropical deforestation, habitat loss and greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental campaigners such as Greenpeace, have used gory imagery to shame companies using ‘dirty’ oil. One fake KitKat advert depicts a chocolate bar made of orangutan fingers being eaten by an oblivious office worker with blood on his face. Purity becomes a resource for advocacy. For manufacturers sensitive to reputational harm, abiding to such ideals often translates into committing to buy oil certified as sustainable by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

RSPO certification ought to involve myriads of criteria, procedures, compliance checks, and digital trails to trace the movement of sustainable oil in the supply chain; but ultimately it relies on the work of auditors, where they decide to look and who they decide to listen to (Silva-Castañeda 2012). Scandals occur from time to time, repeatedly revealing plantation owners violating the rules. Recently, the Transnational Palm Oil Labour Solidarity network documented labour abuses, health hazards, and child work in certified Indonesian plantations supplying Nestlé. The wage system where outsourced workers are paid according to how much fruit they harvest or how many areas they spray with pesticide, is reminiscent of plantations - whether rubber, pepper, or palm oil - under British and Dutch colonial occupation in Southeast Asia. Laborers, far from home and under debt bondage, were (and still are) seen as disposable and forced to work often-fatally long hours (Ramasamy 1992; Ramachandran 1994). It has, therefore, come to be increasingly difficult to see sustainable palm oil as clean enough. This has spawned an interest in genetically engineered microorganisms able to metabolise a substance chemically similar to palm oil from food waste. But is the biotechnological promise of ‘guilt-free’ palm oil substitutes yet another unrealisable dream of purity?

Promising purity…

Across spatial and temporal scales, breeders, chemists and auditors maintain what they perceive as the value of ‘purity’. Though their dreams of purity differ, they have shaped the plant itself, its produce, and how oil products circulate in global markets. When we consider the roots of the plantation-model in the sugar and slave trade (Mintz 1985) - alongside how plantations today continue to reproduce racial, economic, geographic, and class inequalities - the dreams of impossible ‘purity’ that follow our ‘inter-scalar vehicle (Hecht 2018) become impossible to ignore. Ideals of ‘purity’ continue to underlie the transformations of land, plants, oils, and human bodies. From pure palms, to pure oils, to pure ethics, social and environmental violences develop along palm oil’s supply chain. Sometimes violence happens in the name of purity. This tells us something about the moral value of purity itself – how it is shifting, and always unattainable – but also about how it can be used to mask its troubling undersides. The search for purebred palms and versatile oils - produced by white European colonists and their particular brand of rational scientific knowledge – masked the violent deaths and dispossession that this supposedly purer form of knowledge brought in its wake. And when cleanliness and purity become associated with sustainability, once again these value mask how even ‘sustainable’ options can be mired in systemic abuses. As public attention turns to palm oil free products and their ethics – perhaps, then, we ought to remember that purity and its normative undertone are never neutral, nor innocent.


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Alice Rudge is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at UCL. Her current research is on language, plants and human ethics in the Anthropocene.

Véra Ehrenstein is Associate Lecturer (teaching) in Environment, Politics, Society in the Department of Geography at UCL. She co-authored Can Markets Solve Problems? An Empirical Inquiry into Neoliberalism in Action with Daniel Neyland and Sveta Milyaeva (Goldsmiths Press, 2019).