Palm oil is a vegetable oil found in almost half of the household products in the US. It is derived from the African oil palm tree and used in cosmetics, cleaners, shampoos, toothpastes, and most importantly food. Recently, this boom in production and consumption has led to a media storm surrounding tropical deforestation. Globally, approximately 50 million tonnes of oil is produced annually and 80% of which is in most processed foods and cooking oil. Most of this palm oil is being grown in Indonesia and Malaysia, which now have some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. The establishment of palm plantations is thought to bring economic prosperity to the indigenous people but too often we now see corporations reap the profits and leaving towns devastated.
Home to many rainforests, deforestation due to palm oil production has severe impacts on the biodiversity in the Indonesian and Malaysian ecosystems. This leads to increases in greenhouse gas emissions as carbon storage is greatly reduced. Another negative are the numerous animals rapidly losing their habitats and becoming endangered. One famous victim of palm oil is the Sumatran tiger who has lost over two thirds of its habitat due to palm oil plantations. This animal is on the point of extinction with only 400 tigers in the world remaining. Not only are we losing tigers, the UN estimates 1000-5000 orangutans are killed annually as well.
So how do we stop this unsustainable practice and move to a more sustainable palm oil practice or alternative? A nonprofit organization called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004 and aimed to unite the different stakeholders in the industry to implement standards for palm oil. It has developed a list of criteria, which must be complied with in order to receive the sustainable certification. However, many environmentalists do not think this does enough to prevent deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. Therefore alternatives to palm oil such as genetically engineered yeast have been introduced by scientists at the University of Bath. This proves to be a much more sustainable practice that utilizes food waste in order to produce an oily yeast that is very similar to palm oil. The researchers at the University were given a $4 million grant in order to improve the study and scale it up to an industrial level.