The Oil Palm—A Multipurpose Tree
By Awake! correspondent in the Solomon Islands
GUADALCANAL—to many people the name of the island is synonymous with some of the most savage fighting of World War II. Today, however, any who return to this former battleground in the Solomon Islands will find a very different scene—seemingly endless regiments, not of soldiers, but of stately oil palms.
The soil beneath these lush and majestic oil palms once covered tons of leftover bombs and other hazardous war materials. But these war implements have been removed to make way for the oil palm. How did cultivation of this tree get started? And why can we say that this beautiful tall tree is multipurpose?
A Rich History
The first modern description of a tree resembling the oil palm was recorded in the mid-15th century by the Venetian Alvise Ca’da Mosto, who explored the western coast of Africa. Then, nearly 500 years ago, African slaves took the fruit with them to countries across the Atlantic. Thus palm oil has emerged as one of the most widely used vegetable oils in the world today. Oil palms yield more oil per acre than any other oil-producing plant. In addition, the oil palm is a perennial plant that bears fruit and oil for 25 to 30 years.
An important factor in the production of palm oil, especially in some lands in the Far East, was a discovery made in the late 1970’s. Previously it was thought that oil palms were mainly pollinated by the wind. Therefore, a poor crop was attributed to unfavorable climatic conditions. However, recent research has revealed that pollination is done mainly by insects! Thus, the transfer from West Africa to the Far East of insects that could pollinate the trees proved to be beneficial.
The oil palm’s reddish-orange fruit yields two kinds of oil. Both are used in a variety of products, some of which you likely use. Before we consider these, let’s visit a palm oil mill and see how the oil is extracted.
Processing the Golden Fluid
As we approach the mill, our tour guide greets us and takes us inside. All around us heavy machinery is operating. The first step in processing the fruit of the oil palm, he explains, is to place it in a huge cylindrical steam oven. Each bunch of fruit has about 200 date-size fruitlets, which are tightly packed together. The steam oven sterilizes the fruit and helps to loosen the fruitlets from the bunch.
The next step is to separate the fruitlets from the bunch by using a machine called a stripper. The detached fruitlets are then sent to a huge blender, where the fleshy outer pulp is separated from the nut. This fibrous outer flesh is then squeezed in a huge extruder, or press, to obtain crude palm oil. After being cleaned and refined, the palm oil is ready to be shipped.
There is, however, a second type of oil. This comes from the nut. The oil palm’s nut must first be cracked open to get at the kernel. Afterward, the kernels are pressed to release their precious liquid. This oil is called palm-kernel oil.
The residue from the kernels is used to produce a nutritious livestock feed. Similarly, after the fruitlets have been stripped away, the remnants of the fruit bunches are returned to the fields to serve as mulch. The fruit’s fiber and shells are also recycled, being used as fuel for the mill’s boilers. Quite an efficient operation!
From Ice Cream to Face Cream
Palm oil is the second most widely used vegetable oil in the world, after soybean oil. The World Book Encyclopedia says: “During the 1700’s, the English used palm oil as a medicine and hand cream.” Today, however, it can be found in ice cream, margarine, shortening, and cooking oils, as well as in such nonfood products as soaps and cosmetics.
Palm-kernel oil is also used in the manufacture of margarine as well as chocolate and other confectioneries. But that is not the end of the oils’ uses. After additional processing, components of palm and palm-kernel oil are made into pharmaceuticals, soaps, detergents, candles, and even explosives!
Indeed, the oil palm has found a welcome home in the Solomon Islands. The impact of the oil palm on the economy is highlighted by the fact that 13 percent of the country’s exports come from this tree.
When we look up at an oil palm, it is amusing to imagine that a product of this bright-orange fruit may be dripping off a laughing child’s mouth in the form of ice cream and that it may be on his mother’s face, in her makeup. Yes, the oil palm is a versatile tree, and we can be thankful for its bountiful fruitage.
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Two Tons a Day by Hand
Thud . . . thud. Thud . . . thud! The air is filled with the sound of falling fruit bunches as workers on the plantation harvest the oil palms. How do they reach the fruit when it is so high up in the trees?
Using a sharp curved blade that is attached to the end of an extendable pole, harvesters cut fruit off trees that are sometimes the height of a four-story building. On an average day, each worker will harvest between 80 and 100 bunches of fruit and carry them to the roadside for pickup. With each bunch of fruit weighing close to 55 pounds [25 kg], that adds up to a lot of lifting! It takes four and a half tons of fruit to produce one ton of palm oil.