This Palm Oil Substitute May Save the Rainforests

Researchers are working on alternatives made from fermented yeast.

(Tisha 85 / Shutterstock.com)

Palm oil is found in just about everything from the food you eat to the cosmetics or skin care you wear. Now, scientists are working to create a synthetic replacement and they may have come up with a product that’s made from fermented yeast.

Palm oil is actually found in close to 50 percent of the products found in supermarkets according to the World Wildlife Fund UK (WWF). That’s because it is an extremely versatile product, has a long shelf life, is stable at high temperatures so it can be used for frying, and is very inexpensive to use.

Finding a substitute is very important because despite the price, it comes with some big hidden costs to the environment. Palm oil farming is responsible for the deforestation of rainforests and habitat destruction for endangered animals according to The BBC.

“Over the last 30 years, 50 percent of palm oil plantation growth has come at the hands of deforestation of tropical forest and peatland,” Shara Ticku, founder of C16 Biosciences, one of the biotech firms pioneering a synthetic alternative told BBC. “That is really the core of the problem we're trying to solve.”

 C16 Biosciences – a New York startup –  is just one of the organizations that is trying to find a synthetic replacement and the company received a $20 million investment from Breakthrough Energy Ventures; funded by Bill Gates and other high-profile philanthropists.

Researchers at the University of Bath in the UK are also working on finding a replacement for palm oil according to a press release. The research began in 2016 and was recently published in Nature Sustainability.

The Bath team reviewed existing technology from an environmental, technological, and economic perspective to come up with the most viable palm oil substitute and they believe it is a microbial oil that has been genetically modified (GM). “GM engineering has opened up new advances,” Chris Chuck, professor of bioprocess engineering at Bath told BBC.

Both Bath University and C16 Biosciences are working on alternatives that use a fermentation process – like brewing beer – to convert food waste into a product that is similar to natural palm oil according to BBC. “It's a yeast, we feed it sugars, then the yeast grows and they're able to produce large amounts of oil within their cells, and we have to squeeze out that oil or extract it,” said Ticku.

Right now, synthetics cost much more to produce than natural palm oil but that’s because it is not being produced on a large scale yet. Ticku said, “We believe that with our technology platform, at a scale of hundreds of thousands of kilograms annually, we will be cost competitive with palm oil. If we can get enough people to change then there is no longer any justified reason for burning forest to produce this vegetable oil, and that is a success.”

In the meantime, WWF recommends using only RSPI Certified (an independent third-party standard that protects the environment and the local communities) sustainably sourced palm oil. In 2016, 75 percent of all palm oil imports to the UK were sustainable.

You can check out WWF’s scoreboard on the organization's website to see if the brands you use practice sustainable farming. Between sustainable palm oil farming and new alternatives, you can do your part to save the rainforests.

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