Crop cultivation has transformed landscapes, but usually over tens or hundreds of human generations. This is not the case with the oil palm. The drama of its emergence as a significant crop, and the transformations its cultivation has wrought on landscapes, has happened in just two generations.
Oil palm is indigenous to, and widespread in, the riverine areas of West and Central Africa. These single-stemmed palms, which reach thirty metres in height, produce a rosette of leaves up to five metres long and develop clusters of plum-sized fruits. Each fruit has a shiny, reddish-brown coat surrounding a thick layer of oil-rich flesh protecting a stone, inside which there is an oil-rich seed.
Oil palm is one of the most economically valuable plants in West Africa, where all parts of the palm have been used for millennia. Today, palm oil is globally ubiquitous, in products as diverse as biscuits and soap through industrial lubricants to engine fuels. Products from early-twentieth-century use of palm oil, such as Palmolive and Sunlight soaps, have become global brands. Currently, palm oil accounts for at least 45 per cent of the global edible-oil market.
The European and North American oil-palm rush began slowly when the plant was removed from Africa as the continent was colonised in 1700s. By the Second World War, commercial plantations had been established in south-east Asia. In the early 1960s, the global oil-palm fruit harvest was approximately 13.6 million tonnes per year; by 2018 this had increased to 272 million tonnes. Most of this increase has occurred in Indonesia and Malaysia over the last two decades. One tonne of oil-palm fruit yields about 200 kg of palm oil, 25 kg of high-quality kernel oil and a similar quantity of seed residue for animal feed.
Based on fruit-stone characteristics, naturally occurring variation in West African oil palms is conveniently divided into three types, dura, tenera and pisifera, with thick-walled, thin-walled and no-walled stones. Modern commercial palm breeding is focused on highly productive tenera types, with short stems, so that the fruit can be easily harvested and efficiently processed.
Oil palm illustrates the rate at which we can use a plant’s genetics to our own desires and change landscapes in response to political and economic pressures. In little over a century, palm oil has gone from being harvested from wild, at best semi-domesticated, individual palms to being a commercial operation involving highly bred domesticates.
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