Palm Oil May Have Met Its Match, Which Would Be a Boon for the Planet

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credit: K Martinko

Scientists at the University of Bath have successfully cultivated an oily yeast with an identical lipid profile to palm oil.

Palm oil is everywhere. Found in an estimated 50 percent of items at the grocery store, from packaged foods to cleaning supplies, and also made popular by its ‘healthy saturated fat’ profile, it’s an oil that few food manufacturers can afford to give up, despite the environmental havoc wreaked by its production.

Palm oil production is the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Malaysia and Indonesia, which make 87 percent of the world’s palm oil, as well as parts of Central America, where palm oil farms are just starting to make a dent in the world market. It’s also responsible for the deaths of countless orangutans, whose natural habitat is being destroyed to make way for plantations.

Why do we persist with palm oil production when it’s such a notoriously bad industry? The Guardian explains that palm oil is simply too good at what it does:

“Its versatility comes down to two main stellar properties: an exceptionally high melting point and very high saturation levels. Some vegetable oils get close to one of the two, but none to both.”

There may be a realistic alternative on the horizon, however, which is wonderful news for the tropical regions of the planet. Scientists at the University of Bath have managed to cultivate an oily yeast called Metschnikowia pulcherrima that matches palm oil’s lipid profile almost identically.

M. pulcherrima is found almost everywhere, from Vietnam and South Africa to Europe. It uses the sugars in any plant waste residue to grow prolifically and does not need sterile conditions. (The University of Bath has been growing its samples in open outdoor tanks.) If this alternative works out, the land requirements for growing the yeast would be 10 to 100 times less than that of palm oil, freeing up agricultural land and sparing further destruction of rainforests.

Even Greenpeace is hopeful. Says Dr. Doug Parr, one of the organization’s chief scientists:

“Technologies which can produce useable oil from waste and so don’t compete for dedicated farmland look much more promising, and this work appears to bring one of those technologies to reality.”

Further study is needed to find out which is the most sustainable and financially viable culture to produce the yeast on, how to protect it from bugs and inhibitors, and how to maintain high saturate levels. The hope is that M. pulcherrima will be ready for industrial use within 3 to 4 years, if all goes well.

This is excellent news for an industry in desperate need of an overhaul. While there are some organizations working to make palm oil production more sustainable, such as the Rainforest Alliance and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the vast majority of palm oil continues to be produced in ways that are not environmentally friendly.