Replacing palm oil? Synthetic alternatives ‘several years’ from development

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

With viable alternatives to palm thin on the ground, researchers urge existing production to be made more sustainable Pic: GettyImages-heivideo
With viable alternatives to palm thin on the ground, researchers urge existing production to be made more sustainable Pic: GettyImages-heivideo

Related tags Palm oil deforestation

Efforts to create synthetic replacements for palm oil are likely to require ‘several years’ of development before they are commercially viable, meaning emphasis should be placed in the ‘immediate’ drive to make existing production more sustainable.

Links between palm oil production and environmental concerns, including deforestation, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and biodiversity loss make a ‘strong environmental case’ for curtailing the industry. However, according to researchers at the University of Bath's Centre for Integrated Bioprocessing Research (CIBR) and Centre for Sustainable Circular Technologies (CSCT), existing alternatives are not economically or environmentally viable at scale.

A research paper by Dr Sophie Parsons, Professor Chris Chuck and Dr Sofia Raikova, highlighted concerns over the environmental damage inflicted by palm oil production, which has been linked to deforestation in regions including Indonesia and Malaysia.

"Palm oil is the most widely used land-grown oil crop, and expansion in the market over the past few decades has led to increases in greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of biodiverse tropical forest areas to farming,”​ co-author Professor Chuck stressed.

Assessing alternatives to palm

The research team examined alternatives to palm that could be used in food production and concluded that palm oil is ‘challenging’ to replace in formulations for a variety of reasons. "Palm oil is challenging to replace as a product because it is very versatile - it is used in a wide range of cooking, food and other consumer goods products, as well as fuels - but it's also cheap to produce compared to the alternatives,”​ explained Dr Parsons.

The team reviewed existing alternatives to palm oil from a technical, environmental and economic perspective, and grouped the alternatives into three distinct types of alternative technology including existing crop oils, alternative tropical oils and microbial single cell oils.

Looking at alternative oils, the paper concluded that issues around sustainability, as well as technical challenges to formulations, stand in the way of reformulation efforts at scale.

“Large scale replacement with alternative crop oils such as sunflower, rapeseed, or exotic oils like coconut oil and shea butter presents significant sustainability and technical challenges,”​ Dr Parsons suggested.

The best alternative, she concluded, is to progress efforts to synthesise an alternative. “The only viable large-scale direct replacements are single cell oils from algae or yeast,”​ she continued.

Companies working in this field are attracting investment, with Bill Gates’ investment vehicle, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, most recently investing US$20m in C16 Biosciences. The bio-tech start-up has developed a technology to ‘brew’ synthetic palm oil by using microbes to convert food waste and industrial by-products.

However, while the paper’s authors note the ‘significant investment’ this area is attracting, they suggest that widespread commercialisation of the technology remains ‘several years’ off. “These require significant further development before being economically viable,”​ Dr Parsons observed.

‘Make current production more sustainable’

For this reason, the team calls on governments and industry players to work together to make current production more sustainable while synthetic alternatives are developed.

Progress on sustainable palm oil needs to significantly ramp up, Professor Chuck insisted. “Whilst action is being taken to improve the sustainability of palm oil cultivation it is not happening as effectively or quickly as it needs to."

"Governments in producing countries and industry should be working together closely to reduce the impact of the industry while synthetic alternatives are developed for the sake of our climate,”​ Dr Parsons added.

The paper proposes a suite of measures to reduce the impact of palm production, including ‘empowering’ the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification scheme to take ‘effective enforcement action’ where necessary.

The RSPO initiative should also be supported through ‘policy increased demand’ for Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO), which they say currently only accounts for 19% of global production. Policy should encompass local rules to prevent further expansion of farming into ecologically-valuable land. Other measures include implementing certification of plantations and mills, and better managing wastage in the production process.

The team is currently working to understand the lowest theoretical cost of a microbial oil, and the further technological development that would need to be created to produce a competitive alternative to palm oil. They aim to publish this research later in 2020.

‘The viability and desirability of replacing palm oil’
Nature Sustainability
Authors: Sophie Parsons, Sofia Raikova & Christopher J. Chuck

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