Lab-grown palm oil brewed from microbes: Climate-saving gamechanger?

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

Palm oil in test tubes. © GettyImages/psisa
Palm oil in test tubes. © GettyImages/psisa

Related tags Sustainability Palm oil Fermentation Biotechnology Foodtech deforestation Consumer attitudes

US company C16 Biosciences has developed a way to 'brew' palm oil through microbial fermentation, producing sustainable, deforestation-free palm oil. But what will the impact on smallholder farmers be - and will consumers accept it?

The food industry is increasingly turning to microbial fermentation to produce food ingredients that have 'supply problems'.

Companies like DSM and Cargill are ‘brewing’ the best-tasting stevia molecules to bring the cost down while Perfect Day brews dairy proteins, identical to those found in cow’s milk, for animal-free milk.

The manufacturers in both cases say their products are more environmentally friendly as the production process uses less land and generates fewer emissions.

Palm oil, the food industry’s bête noire, which is associated with tropical deforestation and massive carbon emissions, is the latest ingredient food tech researchers are turning their attention to.

US company C16 Biosciences says it has developed the technology to brew palm oil from microbes, producing a sustainable, environmentally friendly alternative to conflict palm oil.

Given palm oil's prevalence - it is used in products ranging from snacks to soap, toothpaste to biofuel - the impact could be significant.

C16 did not respond to FoodNavigator-LATAM’s request for more information about its process and product, but it is understood to be at the very early stages.

The company has nevertheless caught the eye of billionaire Bill Gates, who name-checked it in a blog post​ about ways to reduce agri-food industry-related carbon emissions.

But what would the impact be on the traditional palm sector that, in 2015, produced 58.1 million tonnes, according to Euromonitor?

Impact on smallholders

palm oil farmer on plantation in Belem, Brazil, Glowimages
A palm farmer on a plantation in Belem, Brazil. © GettyImages/Glowimages

Palm Done Right ​is an education platform led by Natural Habitats, one of the world’s biggest suppliers of organic palm oil. Its CEO, Neil Blomquist, ​and sustainability director, Monique van Wijnbergen, said they approached such developments “with reservation​”. 

Our Palm Done Right mission revolves around organic production, supporting sustainable livelihoods and fostering healthy resilient ecosystems. We do not see this development align with that mission.  

“Oil palm [is] an important source of income for farmers and communities in the tropical belts of the world, and if done right, can be more sustainable than any other oil crop​.” 

Most of the world’s palm oil is grown by smallholder farmers. If synthetic palm oil gains critical mass, the impact on these rural producers could be huge.

The palm industry has relatively low levels of mechanization and requires large numbers of workers to maintain and harvest the fruit, creating one job for every eight hectares, said Palm Done Right.

Environmental non-profit Greenpeace said it welcomes new research into alternative oils that have the potential to not drive environmental destruction.

However, Grant Rosoman, senior advisor for global forests solutions at Greenpeace, added: “We would question what the feedstock for the bacteria to feed on to produce the oil is, what are the energy inputs, what is the efficiency, what are the by-products and waste, what are the social benefits, and so forth. 

“If this is to jump to scale to be a viable alternative to palm oil, then it will need a massive feedstock. [How] can it be ensured that this will not drive deforestation or environmental damage directly or indirectly?”

Market segmentation

Dr Miguel A. Tavares Cardoso is CEO of Madebiotech C, R & D, S.A, a Madeira-based consultancy that helps companies develop new industrial processes to valorize natural resources.

He said the development of a low-cost alternative to conventionally produced palm oil could actually increase demand for certified sustainable oil.

“For most of the applications, especially those related to energy and biodiesel production, price is the key factor and - assuming a similar composition in the main constituents of the oil - they would immediately replace their raw material.

“The market for natural palm oil would reflect straightaway this decrease in the demand and the price would come down, forcing a reduction in production and the search for more valorized market segments - [such as] organic, FSC certified, deforestation-free certification... - to keep the same level of added value.”

Rather than putting smallholders’ livelihoods at risk, synthetic palm oil would segment the market, Cardoso said.

Premium products and demanding consumers will not accept the replacement of natural (certified) palm oil by synthetic and will be willing to pay for that. Average consumers, more focused on price, will not even realize the change in mass products,”​ he told FoodNavigator-LATAM.

Food safety

Meanwhile, from a public health and food safety point of view, Cardoso said regulatory authorities such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) had “more than enough” ​technical and scientific expertise to carry out the necessary evaluations before allowing the products to enter the market.

However, the Palm Done Right team were more cautious.

We have seen synthetic versions of fats come and go over the years,” ​they said. “Hydrogenation is the most vivid example but also Olestra that was introduced 20 years ago. They ultimately failed because the human body does not recognize synthetic fat.”

Olestra is a fat substitute commercialized by Procter & Gamble that can cause severe diarrhea (it made from a hybrid molecule of sucrose esterified with eight fatty acids) while hydrogenating oils creates harmful trans fats that cause cardiovascular disease.

Consumer acceptance

consumer, supermarket, choice, processed food, oil, Noel Hendrickson
© GettyImages/NeilHendrikson

Even if synthetic palm oil overcomes the regulatory hurdles, will consumers want to buy products made with it?  

“This is a difficult question as consumers have previously been turned off by so-called ‘Frankenstein foods’,” ​said Steve Osborn, food industry expert and director of The Aurora Ceres Partnership. “Whilst these process [such as fermentation] are inherently ‘natural or traditional’, the paradox is that they are being utilized to ‘synthesize’ sustainable alternatives.​ 

“Acceptance […] will only come when there is true global recognition that long-term food sustainability is of greater importance than a perceived ideal of what is or isn’t natural.”

Oborn predicted Europe to be the hardest market to penetrate - if Europeans’ widespread rejection of GM is anything to go by.

There may be less resistance in Latin America, however, where the clean label movement is less developed, consumers are more price-sensitive and GM, for example, has been largely accepted.

According to GMO Answers, a platform funded by GM companies including BASF, Bayer, DuPont and Syngenta, Latin American countries are “powerhouse producers of GMO crops​” with over 197 million acres of GM maize, soy, cotton, and canola.

Mauricio Posso Vacca, commercial director at Colombian palm oil trade group Fedepalma said last year​ that Latin American consumers' have few preconceptions regarding palm oil, compared to Europeans, comparing their minds to "a beautiful white page."

Sustainable but not synthetic

If consumers remain resistant to the concept of synthetic palm oil in certain markets, there may be other ways to make conventional palm oil more sustainable and reduce pressure on the world’s tropical forests.

A recent report ​by the World Resources Institute (WRI) listed 10 breakthrough technologies that could help feed the world without destroying it, one of which was high-yield oil palm varieties.  

In terms of yield per hectare, oil palms are already more efficient than other oil crops, such as sunflower or rapeseed. But Indonesian company PT Smart has developed an oil palm variety that yields three times more oil than the average palm tree.

These high-yield varieties need to be used in new plantations and when farmers restock current plantations with new trees, [which is] typically done every 20 or more years​,” WRI said.

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