You’ve probably heard about the environmental impact of palm oil cultivation: deforestation, reduction in biodiversity, localised pollution and contributing to climate change. You may have also heard about some of the proposed alternatives. Alternative doesn’t necessarily mean better though. So let’s have a look at what the alternatives to palm oil are, and which ones are viable options for the future.
Common alternatives to palm oil for food products include oils derived from coconut, soybean and maize. Choosing alternative products is a great way to help reduce demand for palm oil, however conversely this also increases demand for these alternative oils. This is not entirely a good thing. To put it simply these alternatives are crops, like oil palm, so cause much of the same environmental consequences as large scale cultivation of palm oil does. In addition, these crops have lower yields and may be more difficult or expensive for small hold farmers to cultivate. For example, the oil yield of soybean is 13 times less than oil palm. This means more land is required to produce the same amount of oil, so greater destruction of forests and biodiversity!
The same goes for jatropha, a plant hailed as the next alternative to palm oil particularly for biodiesel. Jatropha gained traction given restrictions on food crops being used for biodiesel and the fact it can grow on marginal land. However, on marginal land it yields less than on arable land, which is still 3 times less than oil palm.
More recently attention has turned to microbial alternatives: aka oils derived from microbes such as algae and yeast. The table below compares microbial alternatives to palm oil yields and the land area required to cultivate all the palm oil produced in 2014. The alternatives chosen are the lowest estimates for yield from labs which propose viable strains. These are the first alternatives proposed with higher yields than palm oil. If applied on an industrial scale they could dramatically reduce the land required to cultivate oil, therefore reducing deforestation. Plus, strains can be selected to produce oil for different purposes such as for food, cosmetics or biodiesel.
There are many issues with microbial oil production, which currently make it too expensive to be viable. This includes selecting a feed stock and risk of contamination from unwanted microbials. If the strains don’t exist in nature there is an answer: genetic modification. Genetic modification has increased the yield of yeast 37 fold and in the future could produce resistant strains.
Industry are keen to utilise microbial oils, currently from microalgae. One company, ecover tried to replace palm oil in its laundry detergent with genetically modified algae. This was met with such backlash the product was withdrawn and calls a coconut oil replacement. Genetic modification is a tool which can be used for good and for bad. If we wish to prevent further deforestation and protect biodiversity an alternative to palm oil must be found. It is increasingly likely this alternative will be genetically modified, at least to a certain degree. So if we care about the environment, we must be willing to back at least some projects involving genetic modification, as conflicting as that sounds.
Supplement, not replace
Microbial oils can only be part of the solution; they should not completely replace palm oil. Small hold farming is a great method of alleviating poverty, so such palm oil plantations should be made more sustainable. The palm oil industry needs address issues such as the protection of land rights to prevent further deforestation and to reduce slash and burn farming – the main contributor to local pollution and climate change within the palm oil industry. The work of organisations such as the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil should be furthered, along with more open-mindedness towards genetically modified alternatives.