Finding a replacement for palm oil

Thursday, 12 March, 2020

Finding a replacement for palm oil

Researchers have found that creating synthetic replacements for palm oil could still be years away; consequently, more attention should be focused on making existing production processes more sustainable. Despite the significant environmental impact of palm oil production, none of the existing alternative products are currently economically or environmentally viable at scale, according to researchers at the University of Bath’s Centre for Integrated Bioprocessing Research (CIBR) and Centre for Sustainable and Circular Technologies (CSCT).

Published in Nature Sustainability, the findings revealed that despite the strong case to reduce farming of oil palm, short-term efforts must focus on making these processes more sustainable, rather than replacing them. Efforts to synthesise an alternative are predicted to take several years; as a result, researchers are calling on government and industry to collaborate, to make current production more sustainable while synthetic alternatives are developed.

“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. 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,” said Chris Chuck, author and professor.

Researchers analysed existing alternatives to palm oil, grouping them into three distinct types of alternative technology including existing crop oils, alternative tropical oils and microbial single cell oils. Palm oil is a challenging product to replace, due to its range of applications; it can be used in cooking, food and other consumer goods products, as well as fuels.

“While they may be able to play a role in replacing palm oil, 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. The only viable large-scale direct replacements are single cell oils from algae or yeast, but these require significant further development before being economically viable. 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 Sophie Parsons said.

To reduce the impact of palm oil production, researchers recommend empowering the existing Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) scene to take effective enforcement action where needed, supported by policy and ensuring that local rules prevent further expansion of farming into ecologically valuable land. Researchers also recommend implementing certification of plantations and mills, and better management of wastage in the production process. Researchers are currently determining the lowest theoretical cost of a microbial oil, and the technological development that would be required to produce an alternative to palm oil, with their findings to be published later in 2020.

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