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Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Became an Ingredient in Everything―and Endangered the World

By Jocelyn Zuckerman

(The New Press, May 2021)

It’s in our instant noodles and chocolate bars, our lipsticks and gas tanks. But what is palm oil, and how has it come to dominate our lives so completely?

Jocelyn 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 colonization 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 industrialized 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.

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Jocelyn Zuckerman is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Fast Company, The American Prospect, the New York Times Magazine, and other publications. She served as deputy editor at Gourmet, articles editor at OnEarth, and executive editor at both Whole Living and Modern Farmer magazines. An honors graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, she is the recipient of a James Beard Award for feature writing and numerous fellowships, including an Alicia Patterson Fellowship in support of her research on palm oil. She is based in Brooklyn, NY.