Synthetic Palm Oil

Unsustainably produced palm oil is in almost everything we consume

Most of us have no notion that the chocolate, biscuits, pizza dough, bread, noodles, burgers and margarine we consume daily, relies for mouth feel and texture on palm oil. Australia imports 140,000 tonnes of palm oil annually (at a value of $1AUDbn) and astonishly, the average Australian will consume 7kg per year of palm oil in foodstuffs, cosmetics and washing products. There is no legislation in Australia requiring companies to separately label palm oil as an ingredient and it is present in up to 50% of packaged items on our supermarket shelves, making it almost impossible to avoid.

This seemingly innocuous product, which in its refined form resembles lard and has so many attractive properties for the food and chemical industries, has a dark back-story. Thousands of hectares of biodiverse rainforest – home to the orangutan – are bulldozed, cleared and burnt each year, often illegally, in countries including Indonesia, Borneo and Malaysia, to make way for vast oil-palm plantations.

BioFoundry, in partnership with spin-off company MP Oil, is harnessing public and citizen science anger at this ongoing destruction, to drive research aimed at identifying a sustainable substitute to palm oil. Ethical venture capital firm Liminno is backing the project, whose researchers are passionate about not only halting the destruction of rainforest, but also providing job opportunities to palm oil-dependent communities and building cultures which value the rainforest ecology and are committed to forest remediation.

The problem

Oil-palm trees thrive in the tropical zone, a narrow belt around the equator. Unfortunately, this area also contains much of the world’s rainforests, valued for their biodiversity and carbon storage properties, and is home to many poor indigenous communities. Accelerating world demand for palm oil has driven the conversion of rainforest to palm plantations on a massive scale. Around 72 million hectares is now devoted to palm monocultures, which produce 62 million tonnes of palm oil annually (only 14% of which is certified as ‘sustainable’). Demand continues to increase by around 5% year on year. Both native communities and large enterprises have taken advantage of the palm tree’s initial high productivity and first world demand for fast food, cosmetics and biofuel, to combat poverty or make a fast buck. The destruction is fuelled by both greed and necessity.

However, this short-sighted land grab has come at a cost. When the meters-thick layer of peat soil on which the rainforest grew – a massive natural carbon store – is drained and forest residues burnt, millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide, methane and particulates are released. The peat can smoulder for years, causing poor air quality across whole continents and leading to 1,000s of early deaths. The iconic orangutan has been driven to the verge of extinction. Carbon dioxide was above 400 parts per million – historically seen as a critical tipping point for climate change – for all of 2016. Amnesty and Verité also note that palm oil cultivation has been associated with poor working conditions for indigenous peoples and illegal acquisition of land. Over the longer term, a largely intact strip of rainforest around Earth’s equator is vital for the well-being of the global population.

Deforestation by the Palm Oil Industry

The right to self-determination by developing nations is a necessary factor in global politics, however it can also reinforce behaviour that is detrimental to local ecosystems. Destruction of native forests for plantations, accompanied by the drainage and torching of peatlands is responsible for the release of enormous quantities of Methane & Carbon Dioxide. In addition, the particulate matter released leads to terminal lung damage, responsible for as many as 100,000 deaths in South-East Asia annually.

Economic Challenge: Palm Oil’s efficiency has made it the plantation crop of choice in many developing nations.

What are we doing?

Literature research undertaken to date offers the interesting possibility that oil obtained from a common yeast strain used in wine-production – metschnikowia pulcherrima – may possess many of the qualities that make palm oil such a widely used product in food stuffs and cosmetics. The 15-month project is drawing on the expertise and creativity of citizen science makers, to develop the best means of separating (lysing) the yeast and purifying the extracted oil. It will be extensively tested against all the known properties of palm oil (used mostly in foodstuffs) and palm kernel oil (used in soap, washing powder and industrial processes), to determine to what extent and in what applications it could be used as a substitute. Assuming a favourable result, the main issues will be overcoming barriers to market entry, gaining regulatory approval and scale-up of manufacture (including efficient yeast production and selective breeding for optimum oil synthesis).

Conversations are already being held with movers and shakers in the palm oil supply chain, including producers already committed to ethical production and bulk suppliers to Australian food processors. We are committed to ensuring that commercialisation of our sustainable oil will benefit the small-scale indigenous producers of palm oil who have most to lose from a collapse in palm oil demand. In short, the project aims to deliver a substitute for non-sustainably grown palm oil and at the same time facilitate sustainable work opportunities to those regions currently dependent on palm oil income and driving forest remediation.

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