Save the Whales, Kill the Orangutans?

October 23, 2023

This presentation is sponsored by David Lam Centre.

We know that with an industrialized diet, rates of food-caused diseases, such as obesity, are now skyrocketing around the world. As a personal level, this can lead to a deep suspicion of fats and oils. Yet at a national level, acquiring affordable fats and oils has long been of great strategic importance. Around World War Two, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan both sent large scale whaling fleets to Antarctica to secure access to whale oil, a “national defense commodity.” At this time, most of the world’s margarine was created using whale oil. Yet, by the 1960s, when debates about the ethics of killing whales led to a collapse of the industry, nations turned to other sources of oil, including the development of large scale soybean plantations in Brazil and massive oil palm plantations throughout Southeast Asia. In both places, the end of whaling ended up promoting the conversion of rainforests into monocultural landscapes for edible oils. In turn, the thick forests that provided orangutans with a rich habitat were whittled away, as the world turned from the direct harms of whales to the indirect harms of orangutans.


Akamine Jun (赤嶺淳) is a professor at the Graduate School of Social Sciences, Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. His research interests include Maritime Asian Studies and ethnography of food. One of his current research topics is global whaling history and whale meat foodways in Japan. Currently he is writing a book on social history of margarine in relation to development in marine and agricultural edible oils. He is an author of Conserving Biodiversity for Cultural Diversity: A Multi-sited Ethnography of Sea Cucumber Wars (Tokai University Press, 2013). He also serves as an advisor for the Japanese government delegation at the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).