Ticku was struck by the inherent social inequality within palm oil production: It’s a crop that, in this time of precipitously rising food insecurity, can only be grown at near-equatorial latitudes—yet it mainly feeds demand for processed foods, cosmetics, and biofuels in the Global North. “We’re using some of our most valuable arable land to make an oil,” she says. “This doesn’t make any sense at all.”
To Ticku, a health researcher with a grounding in science and a Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial confidence, palm oil seemed like a product that could be made better—and more profitable—in a biochemistry lab.
African oil palm, Elaeis guineensis, and a few other oil-producing palm species are grown widely across Southeast Asia, West Africa, Central America, and the West Indies. The oil produced from their fruits—stained red by high levels of beta carotene—is found in everything from frozen pizzas and packaged donuts to lipstick and soap, laundry detergent and biofuels to animal feed and cooking oil. It’s cheap, odorless, and withstands high temperatures. Globally, palm oil plantations cover an area around half the size of France. The world consumed nearly 70 million metric tons of it in 2018, more than any other vegetable oil, and the rate is quickly rising.
But over the last several years, fires and haze linked to palm oil plantations have resulted in more than 100,000 deaths and $30 billion in economic losses in Indonesia. Palm oil is a top driver of deforestation in Southeast Asia and a threat to nearly 200 vulnerable or endangered species, including orangutans, gibbons, and tigers. And the greenhouse gas emissions from palm oil-related deforestation and fires in Indonesia alone have at times exceeded those of the entire US economy.
In response, a growing number of agribusiness corporations, including Mars, Kraft, and Nestle, as well as thousands of banks, retailers, civil society groups, and other institutions, have signed on to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a nongovernmental certification board that requires its members to uphold high standards of transparency, environmental protection, and labor rights. One-fifth of the world’s palm oil supply is certified by the RSPO.