The rise of industrial-scale palm oil farming in West Africa, that provides the oils in your sauces and lotions, could be the catalysts that caused the Ebola pandemic.
Oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) grows wild in West and Equatorial Africa. It has been used as a food and energy source for millennia, but today it is found in absolutely everything from food and household products, to make-up, and most cosmetics. Since palm oil is a major ingredient in a large proportion of foods and cosmetics, demand for it is high, and to supply palm oil large swaths of forest need to be felled to grow the palms. Palm oil monoculture necessitates deforestation, and because it is a monoculture it is less resilient and resistant to pests and diseases…like the Ebola virus.
Of course the agro-ecological changes across West Africa that led to the Ebola virus are complex, but they warrant scrutiny. Studies in biology, epidemiology and human ecology have refined our understanding of the links between intensive agriculture for export, and the economics driving plantation farming which ‘desterilises’ a natural or human ecosystem in which a pathogen had been held in balance at a low-level equilibrium value, or simply had not previously evolved.
The global palm oil industry’s aggressive agricultural development breaches natural barriers; crossing such delicate ecological thresholds disrupts the balance and allows the spread of specific pathogens. The Allee effect occurs when sudden changes in one ecological element causes the mechanisms for keeping a species populations – such as viruses - in equilibrium to shift, increasing the probability of spill over to alternative hosts. Such an effect could be the process by which palm oil’s deforestation allowed the Ebola virus to shift and move into human blood. On the article take a look at the Ebolavirus pictorial cycle for the virus’s animal-human interface and shift.
Given that food and cosmetics industries will not readily change their recipes and formulae to a palm oil substitute, the next best ingredient is sustainably sourced palm oil. The Roundtable For Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a hugely powerful lobby group that aims to transform markets to make sustainable palm oil the norm. And RSPO is definitely succeeding in their aim, with commitments to shift to ecologically-sound and sustainably sourced palm oil made by Mars, Nestle, Haribo, Unilver, Kraft, Wrigley. All the major UK supermarkets too - Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Waitrose, M&S, and Aldi - have signed these agreements to stop a pandemic of unsustainable palm monocultures.
Of course it is premature to say conclusively what caused the Ebola outbreak and exactly how culpable was the palm oil industry. But this study is one of the most comprehensive yet to be conducted.
The researchers found that the land around Gueckedou, i.e. "ground zero," contains islands of monoculture palm plantations. They also noted that "land use appears as a mosaic of local villages surrounded by dense vegetation interspersed with fruit-tree plantations, an environment also suitable for frugivore bats (Pteropodidae), a key Ebola reservoir."