Science, Tech & Environment

Yes, palm oil is destructive — but scientists are creating compelling alternatives

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Palm oil is harvested from Elaeis guineensis, an oil palm tree native to Africa that is grown in southeast Asia. The oil itself isn’t so bad — it has a much higher yield than other oilseed crops like rapeseed, coconut, and soya, so it requires less land to produce the same amount of oil.

 

Credit:

Llan Pin Koh/Flickr

Cookies, crackers, and other prepackaged favorites are stirring up more trouble than late night munching. Between one-third and one-half of all processed foods are made with palm oil, a preservative linked to damaging environmental effects on wildlife and the climate.

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But a new focus on palm oil, and some interesting innovations, might help stop the destruction.

Palm oil comes from the clusters of brilliant orange fruit of the tree Elaeis guineensis. It’s grown in plantations that span millions of acres across southeast Asia; companies often clear-cut forests that are home to endangered orangutans and Sumatran tigers to plant these trees. Between 1990 and 2010 an area of forest the size of 2 million football fields was cleared to make way for oil palms.

Doug Boucher, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ tropical forest and climate initiative, says palm oil presents uniquely sinister problems because “substantial areas of southeast Asia have very carbon-rich soils, peat soils, with sometimes quite thick deposits of peat."

When the peat is drained for oil palm plantations, large amounts of carbon dioxide are released. And when peat is exposed to the air, it can burn, releasing three to four times as much carbon as rainforest clear-cutting.

These dangers of palm oil have caused companies to seek out substitutes.

Scientists at the University of Bath in the UK are developing an oil from a common type of yeast that can grow on almost any feedstock. And the California company Solazyme has begun extracting an oil with similar properties from microalgae. Jill Kauffman Johnson, Solazyme’s Global Sustainability Director, says they prepare the oil in much the way other companies brew beer.

“We feed sugar to the algae, and then put that all into a large fermentation tank,” Johnson says. “The algae then convert the sugar into oil, and it allows us to produce large amounts of oil in a matter of days.”

Solazyme has a contract to supply the sustainability-minded company Unilever with 3 million gallons of this algae oil for its soaps and toiletries. “We’re also finding in a recent study that we’ve had done that has been third-party reviewed,” says Johnson, “the greenhouse gas emission profile with the algae oil produced at our plant based in Brazil, where the sugar source is sugarcane, has a lower carbon footprint than that of palm oil and palm kernel oil.”

But despite palm oil’s problems and the promising alternatives, Boucher says the crop does have some advantages. “It actually accumulates carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the process of growing. So if you produce it in areas that are not forested, but rather you use already-cleared land, you can actually have a positive benefit from it.”

Since 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil has been working to eliminate the destruction.

Palm oil producers can join the RSPO and have their product certified as “sustainable,” but Boucher argues that the organization “doesn’t require them to stop deforesting, nor does it prevent them from clearing peat. It puts certain areas of forest off limits, which is better than nothing, but it doesn’t lead to no deforestation or no peat clearing.”

Boucher believes the Union of Concerned Scientists has a more effective approach — it convinces companies to commit to zero deforestation in order to enhance their reputation, and major consumer products companies like Kellogg, Colgate–Palmolive and Proctor and Gamble have made zero deforestation commitments within the last few years.

And these changes mean that perhaps palm oil and sustainable living don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Between 1990 and 2010, the land equivalent of almost 2 million football fields was cleared to plant oil palm trees in southeast Asia. By 2020, carbon emissions from burning forests are estimated to be over 558 million metric tons.

 

Credit:

Achmad Rabin Taim/Wikimedia Commons

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's Living on Earth.