Although many people have never heard of palm oil, this vegetable oil can be found in around 50 percent of all consumer goods. Used for its incredible versatility and low cost, palm oil is very convenient for manufacturers, however, it comes at a huge cost to the world’s forests.
The palm plant grows best in warm, tropical climates and Indonesia and Malaysia have become the main regions for palm oil production. Due to the high demand for palm crops, it is estimated that 300 football fields of rainforest are cleared every hour to make way for palm plantations!
Not only has this had a devastating effect on the local environment in the form of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but it has also left countless endangered animals species without a home. It is estimated that palm oil production has caused the orangutan population to lose 90 percent of its natural habitat. As a result, over 50,000 orangutans have died in the past two decades alone.
Who would have thought that our snack foods and shampoos could cause such wide-scale destruction on the other side of the world?
Thankfully, there are many companies and organizations working to mitigate the damage done by palm oil production. While the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil has created some guidelines to limit the amount of deforestation caused in palm oil supply chains, there is still a long way to go before these methods are instated and enforced to a point where they can be effective. Some also argue that by replacing palm oil with another vegetable oil, we would only see similar increases in deforestation and environmental damage to up the production of other options.
But it looks like a real-deal sustainable alternative to palm oil is in sight! Researchers at the University of Bath have developed a way to chemically engineer an oily yeast that can mimic palm oil’s most sought after properties. Using Metschnikowia pulcherrima, a yeast historically used in the South African wine industry, scientists believe they can develop a truly versatile and planet-friendly alternative to palm oil!
Unlike palm plants that need to be cultivated in a specific climate and take up tons of land, this yeast can grown by being fed any form of organic feedstock.
“Irrespective of what you are putting in at the start, whether it’s rapeseed, straw or waste food, M pulcherrima can use the sugars in it and grow on it,” says Dr Chris Chuck, research fellow at Bath’s Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies.
It is estimated that the amount of land needed to grow this yeast could be anywhere from 10 to 100 percent less than palm oil. The team also believes that they can even use leftover waste from the agriculture industry to grow the yeast, meaning it would not even need to compete for farmland.
The development of this alternative still has a ways to go. At current rates, it costs around $400 more per ton to produce yeast than palm oil, so it’s not yet economically viable. However, scientists are confident that they can have this product up and running within the next three or four years!
Image source: Imgur