Alternatives produced in laboratories aim to reduce palm oil dependence.

Shara Ticku came up with the idea for a palm oil substitute that could be grown in a laboratory when she was landing at the international airport in Singapore a decade ago.

“In 2013 I flew to Singapore, and when I landed I had to wear a mask,” says the boss of US tech firm C16 Biosciences. “The air was toxic because they were burning the rainforest in Indonesia.”

The fires and smoke that traveled across the sea to Singapore were attributed to Indonesian farmers clearing land for palm oil and other crops.

Now, fast forward to today, and her company has just made available for purchase a yeast-derived palm oil substitute.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), palm oil still accounts for 40% of all vegetable oils produced worldwide.

Because it is so useful, food and cosmetics companies adore it. It has no odor, taste, or color, so it doesn’t change how products smell, taste, or look.

Instead, it gives the food a silky texture and serves as a natural preserver. Additionally, it maintains its properties even at high temperatures, making it an excellent cooking ingredient.

According to the WWF, palm oil or its derivatives are present in almost half of all products on supermarket shelves because of its widespread use. Chocolate, shampoo, pizza, toothpaste, deodorant, and even toothpaste are included in this.

“No matter how hard you try, every single person touches palm oil everyday,” says Ms Ticku. “It is in everything.”

The problem with this usage that has been discussed a lot is that the demand for palm oil has caused a lot of deforestation in places where oil palm trees can grow, like low-lying, hot, and wet places near the equator.

From 3.3 million hectares (eight million acres) in 1970 to 28.7 million hectares (eight million acres) in 2020, 85 percent of this land is used for palm oil cultivation.

According to one report, the global palm oil industry will be worth $62.3 billion (£51.2 billion) in 2021. In addition, this amount is anticipated to rise to $75.7 billion by 2028 due to the continuing expansion of demand.

In 2018, Ms. Ticku, a former investment banker, and her co-founders established C16 Biosciences in New York City in an effort to lessen the world’s reliance on palm oil. The company has developed and refined their Palmless product over the past four years, supported by multimillion-dollar funding from Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

They harvest an oil produced by a yeast strain that naturally produces something very similar to palm oil. Sugars from sugar cane plants that are grown on land that is already used for agriculture are fed to the yeast.

“Our process takes less than seven days from start to finish,” says a spokeswoman for C16 Biosciences. “For a traditional oil palm tree, the oil wouldn’t be ready to harvest until years after the seed is planted, and most trees don’t reach peak production until seven years later.”

She adds that the company is now “actively collaborating on partnerships in the beauty and home categories – for example, moisturisers, nourishing oils, soaps and cancels”. “[And] we plan to enter into food in 2024.”

One more justification behind the proceeding with prevalence of palm oil is that it is extremely useful.

“You get so much more oil per hectare [from oil palms] than any other oil crop,” says Chris Chuck, professor of bioprocess engineering at the University of Bath. “Oil palms produce about 5,000 kg [of oil] per hectare per year, rapeseed about 1,000 kg per hectare per year, and soybean 400 kg per hectare per year.”

He asserts that while using other edible oils might alleviate pressure on tropical forests, doing so would necessitate giving up much more land for agriculture elsewhere.

Prof. Chuck is in charge of a second team that has developed its own yeast-sourced alternative to reduce demand for palm oil.

According to Prof. Chuck, he and his colleagues—food scientists, biologists, chemists, mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, and food engineers—worked hard to find a yeast that was strong enough to produce a lot of oil.

“You put the yeast in a horrendous environment, forcing it to evolve so it can survive. You’re simply speeding up a natural process,” he explains.

Metschnikowia pulcherrima, or MP for short, was discovered after years of experimentation and hundreds of generations of yeast.

It is said that MP is tough and doesn’t care what it eats. It can eat grass and food scraps. Additionally, its cells are loaded with oil at the time of harvest.

There is no need to throw away even the leftover biomass of yeast cells. It can be used to make other products, like making a protein that replaces soya.

According to Prof. Chuck, the goal is for the oil to be as long-lasting as possible.

“In the best case scenarios we’ve modelled,” he says, “it could be even just a couple of percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from palm oil grown in Indonesia or Malaysia.”

The team has completed a successful pilot and is now moving on to industrial scale. Additionally, a private company known as Clean Food Group recently formed a partnership with an unidentified UK supermarket.

Prof. Chuck anticipates that, within the next five years, bioreactors with a capacity of 500,000 liters, much like those utilized by major breweries, will be producing the yeast and giving palm oil a run for its money.

Can we, therefore, live without palm oil? Alternatives developed in laboratories have the potential to become an essential tool in the fight against climate change brought on by deforestation, as well as in the prevention of biodiversity loss and future food insecurity.

“There’s a lot of excitement and hype – a lot of people rushing into this space. And that’s great,” says Prof Chuck. “The mounds of oil produced globally are so enormous – there’s space for everybody.”


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