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A New Palm Oil Alternative Could Save Rainforests

Shaun Britton reveals the devastating truth behind the palm oil industry, but offers some hope as an alternative may be on the way.

Photo by Jessica Favaro

Palm oil is in a bewildering array of products these days, so much so that it’s easy to forget both its origins and its impact. With such bad press surrounding it, notably the deforestation of rainforests leading to devastation of habitats and ecosystems, could hope be found in a new alternative?

Elaeis guineensis, or palm oil, is an oil obtained from the fruit that grow on palm trees. Palm oil is harvested in a variety of ways, but the oils are derived from either the palm trees’ fleshy fruits themselves or by crushing their stones, referred to as the kernels.

Production of the versatile ingredient increased 15-fold between 1980 and 2014, and is used in everything from cosmetics to shampoo, ice cream to laundry detergent, instant noodles to biofuel. It’s become such an integral and convenient part of everyday products that it can be hard to avoid without expressly keeping an eye out for it.

Overwhelming Impact

According to the WWF, Indonesia and Malaysia make up around 85% of global supply for palm oil production, with over 40 countries also producing it, including Thailand, Colombia and Nigeria. Around 4 million people in Indonesia depend upon palm oil production for their livelihoods, but the environmental effects of the industry have been innumerable. Across ecology, human and animal rights, palm oil’s shadow has begun to creep into the public consciousness, and several damning reports and exposés have pointed to its negative impact and the necessity of reducing its use.

An issues-brief from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) states that palm oil directly threatens 193 critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable species, including Orang-Utans. It also reports that on the island of Borneo, at least 50% of deforestation between 2005 and 2015 was as a result of palm oil production. The WWF have further reported that an area equivalent to 300 football fields in cleared every hour for palm oil production. In November 2020, the BBC in fact reported an incident involving the clearing of nearly 60,000 hectares of land in Indonesia by a company for palm oil plantations.

These numbers are huge, yet so many people seem to remain unaware of the impact of the product’s manufacture, perhaps because from a distance the palm trees could look like part of the rainforest. In fact, rows and rows of identical and artificially planted trees make biodiversity on the plantations impossible, eliminating the species-rich habitats of the rainforests which formerly stood in their place.

Academic Alternatives

With the situation at an imperative juncture, there has been hopeful news from a team of researchers at Bath University, who have developed a method to mimic palm oil’s properties using a yeast called Metschnikowia pulcherrima. The scientists note that the land needed for this yeast to be cultivated would be anywhere from 10 to 100 percent less than needed for palm oil. Though the product is not currently economically viable, the scientists are confident they could have it running in a practical format within four years. Additionally, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has introduced a new Principles and Criteria (P&C) which any company seeking to produce certified sustainable palm oil would need to adhere too.

As we seek to buy ethically where palm oil is concerned, we can start by seeking its sustainable counterparts. We have more power than we realise, and in each transaction, we send a message that makes its way to the producers of such products. While we wait for alternatives, we can make it clear to producers and sellers that we want the ecological damage to end, thus playing our part in protecting our world for all its inhabitants as it grows more fragile by the day.


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