What's the problem with Palm Oil, anyway?

What's the problem with Palm Oil, anyway?

What is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is made from the fruits of trees called African Oil Palms. Originating from west and south-west Africa, they were introduced to Indonesia and Malaysia in the late 19th century .

Since then, its use has boomed. That’s down to it being a super-efficient oil product, meaning a lot more can be produced per acre of land than other oils such as soybean and coconut.

Palm oil is now the most widely used oil in the world. Food, household cleaners, personal care and cosmetics all contain it.

Why is it so environmentally damaging?

The way it’s grown is unsustainable. In order to clear land to grow palm, swathes of rainforest are burned, destroying habitat and homes and the fragile rainforest ecosystem.

It’s a double whammy for the climate. Trees that remove carbon from the air are destroyed, removing their storage properties forever. And when the forest is burned, high levels of carbon dioxide and soot are released, a huge contributor to climate change.

Rising palm oil production

At present, palm oil is an ingredient in around half of all consumer products – both edible and inedible – with farmers producing 77 million tonnes of palm oil in 2018 alone. This number is expected to rise to 107.6 million tonnes by 2024, despite recent global recognition of palm oil’s detrimental impacts.

Are there alternatives?

Oil from microalgae could be a healthier, more environmentally sustainable substitute for palm oil, according to a new study.

In the February 2022 issue of the Journal of Applied Phycology, researchers at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore described how they produced oil from microalgae and discovered positive health benefits in comparison to palm oil. 

Oil derived from microalgae – photosynthesizing microorganisms that live in salt- or fresh-water – contains more polyunsaturated fatty acids (which reduce cholesterol) and fewer saturated fatty acids than palm oil.

Microalgae is also environmentally sustainable: it is ubiquitous underwater, naturally regenerative, and harvesting it has little impact on the natural environment. Palm oil extraction, in contrast, is a notoriously large contributor to deforestation, threatening countless animal habitats, notably orangutans, pygmy elephants, and Sumatran rhinos.

William Chen DSc, director of NTU’s Food Science and Technology Program, said: “Developing these plant-based oils from algae is yet another triumph for NTU Singapore as we look to find successful ways to tackle problems in the agri-food-tech chain, especially those that have an adverse impact on the environment. 

“Uncovering this as a potential human food source is an opportunity to lessen the impact the food supply chain has on our planet,” Chen said.


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