Planet Palm

How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything—and Endangered the World

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Pub Date 25 May 2021 | Archive Date 31 May 2021

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In the tradition of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, a groundbreaking global investigation into the industry ravaging the environment and global health—from the James Beard Award–winning journalist

Over the past few decades, palm oil has seeped into every corner of our lives. Worldwide, palm oil production has nearly doubled in just the last decade: oil-palm plantations now cover an area nearly the size of New Zealand, and some form of the commodity lurks in half the products on U.S. grocery shelves. But the palm oil revolution has been built on stolen land and slave labor; it’s swept away cultures and so devastated the landscapes of Southeast Asia that iconic animals now teeter on the brink of extinction. Fires lit to clear the way for plantations spew carbon emissions to rival those of industrialized nations.

James Beard Award–winning journalist Jocelyn C. Zuckerman spent years traveling the globe, from Liberia to Indonesia, India to Brazil, reporting on the human and environmental impacts of this poorly understood plant. The result is Planet Palm, a riveting account blending history, science, politics, and food as seen through the people whose lives have been upended by this hidden ingredient.

This groundbreaking work of first-rate journalism compels us to examine the connections between the choices we make at the grocery store and a planet under siege.

In the tradition of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, a groundbreaking global investigation into the industry ravaging the environment and global health—from the James Beard Award–winning journalist


Advance Praise

"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, bestselling author of Tender at the Bone and My Kitchen Year


"Most of us are familiar by now with how commodities like cotton, sugar, and gold have defined the course of empire and exploitation. In this lively and intriguing book, Jocelyn Zuckerman adds to the list something that, remarkably, 99 percent of the time we don’t even know we’re consuming. 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 takes us on a troubling, time-traveling adventure that follows the journey of what will become the indispensable ingredient. Today, palm oil, with its intrinsic links to colonization and slavery, has become ubiquitous in our consumerist culture. Sadly, its exploitation, a mere reflection of our global food system, has had terrible consequences."

—Pierre Thiam, Senegalese chef and co-founder of Yolélé Foods


"Man-eating pythons, rogue elephants, armed gangsters, corrupt politicians, murderous executives, modern-day slave owners. Zuckerman encounters them all 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


"I’ve always thought of palm oil as just another best-to-avoid food ingredient for its high level of saturated fat, but I can never look at it the same way again 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. It needs to be read."

—Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health, emerita, New York University, and author most recently of Let’s Ask Marion


"Crisscrossing four continents, Zuckerman presents a spirited and disarming exposé of the insidious way this one tree species has endangered cultures, economies, and ecosystems."

Booklist (starred review)

"[A] definitive, damning account of the history of palm oil production and the ecological destruction it causes."

Kirkus Reviews


"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...

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Featured Reviews

Eye Opening, Yet Problematic Itself. This is a well documented work - roughly 30% of the text was bibliography, even if much of it wasn't actually referenced in the text of the advance reader copy I read. (Perhaps that will be corrected before actual publication, so if you're reading a fully published version circa June 2021 or later, please comment and let me know. :D) It does a tremendous job of showing the development of palm oil from regional subsistence level agriculture to today's modern arguably Big Palm level industry, and how it spread from regional staple to in seemingly every home in the "developed" world, at minimum. It is here that the book is truly eye opening, and truly shows some areas that perhaps still need some work. HOWEVER, the book also often lauds communists and eco-terrorists, among other less than savory characters, for the "efforts" to "combat" this scourge - and this is something that is both pervasive throughout the text and a bit heavy handed, particularly when praising a team of Greenpeace pirates who tried to illegally board a cargo ship a few years ago. Still, even with the aforementioned pervasive praise of people who arguably truly shouldn't be, the fact that the text does such a solid job of explaining the various issues and histories at hand alone merits its consideration. Recommended.

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How is it possible that in 21. century there is a commodity that is so harmful and yet so ubiquitous? Palm oil is destructive to the natural environment (mostly peat swamps and rain forests and their biodiversity), to the people who produce it (often as virtual slaves, breathing and touching poisonous chemicals) and live nearby (losing their homes and livelihoods), and finally to the consumers (who often unknowingly ingest it in copious amounts, detrimental to their health). Who benefits? A handful of unscrupulous businessmen and corrupt officials. It is a pretty well written and interesting, but above all - important book. It investigates all of this and more, providing detailed and colorful picture of the oil palm business from colonial history to the present day, and revealing many ugly truths that we, global consumers, don't like to think about. Regarding the critics, I agree that the problem with “eco-colonialism” is real - I think that the expectations of the West, where all old forests were cleared long ago and many native species were led to extinction, towards the developing countries are often hypocritical and unfair, as the author acknowledged in the epilogue. Nonetheless, it is true that something has to be done for the sake of both local communities and the global environment. I am not sure activism is a proper solution but it surely helps to build awareness. Thanks to the publisher, The New Press, and NetGalley for the advance copy of this book.

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