Palm oil and deforestation

3rd November 2016

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  • Business & Industry ,
  • Agriculture ,
  • Waste ,
  • Natural resources ,
  • Biodiversity


Haydn Brittain

Meeting the sustainability challenge

Palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet and is in everything from shampoo and cosmetics to chocolate and bread. But its use is linked to deforestation, with oil palm trees cultivated in some of the world’s most biodiverse areas.

In September, conservation body WWF released its latest Palm Oil Buyers scorecard. Rating companies on their use of sustainable palm oil, it revealed that a number of UK organisations are leading the way on sustainable palm oil sourcing. Associated British Foods, Boots, The Co-operative, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Premier Foods, Reckitt Benckiser, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Warburtons and Young’s all scoring full marks.

Sustainable sourcing of palm oil is a major challenge. This was highlighted by a report from Friends of the Earth published earlier this year, which drew attention to investment by US companies that often lead to ‘land grabbing’ and human rights abuses in relation to the production of palm oil.

What if there was a way to produce palm oil in the UK from waste plant-based material? As part an Industrial Biotechnology (IB) Catalyst project, Dr Sophie Parsons from the IEMA futures team and colleagues at the University of Bath are producing palm oil from waste lignocellulosic material (biomass) and yeast commonly used in the South African wine industry. Her role is to ensure the process is as environmentally sustainable as possible. ‘This is a fantastic opportunity to contribute to the circular bioeconomy by utilising waste plant material and turning it into palm oil along with a number of other useful products,’ Parsons said.

The project uses the yeast metschnikowia pulcherrima, which can be found in tree leaves, fruits and flowers, and gives a similar lipid profile to palm oil. The yeast can use a carbohydrate feedstock without needing expensive enzymes to break down the plant material into sugars. As the process moves towards commercial expansion, understanding the environmental implications from scaling up the process is important.

There are a number of different factors to consider in designing a production process that can have a lower environmental impact than the common method for producing palm oil, said Parsons: ‘We want to make sure that when we scale up, the full lifecycle implications of the technology have been considered. We are using a combination of lifecycle assessment and techno-economic analysis to understand the process in terms of both the environmental and commercial implications.’

The production process aims to minimise impact as much as possible through the use of waste material, and the ambient conditions in which the yeast can grow.

If you would like to find out more about the project visit


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