Researchers at the universities of Bath and York say they have developed an alternative to palm oil that is completely orangutan safe. The high demand for the oil of palm trees, harvested in the big apes’ habitat, threatens the livelihood of the already endangered species. If scientists are able to devise a suitable substitute, it may be possible to save the orangutans from further danger and possibly even from extinction.
Palm oil is used in a wide variety of cosmetics and food products, and demand for the oil has steadily increased in recent years. The oil is also used in biofuels around the world. Products like Nutella have risen in popularity, putting pressure on the palm oil industry to increase production. Harvesting the oil from palm trees where orangutans live has threatened the apes with loss of habitat, and there is mounting evidence the endangered apes are often slaughtered to get them out of the way.
The oil developed through lab research is made from yeast derived from biomass like the byproduct of wheat straw and rapeseed straw after food production. “We can use the yeast to produce a palm oil substitute,” University Of Bath lead researcher Dr Christopher Chuck told Reuters. “So it has a biomechanical composition very similar to palm oil and therefore it has the same physical possibilities, so it’s as thick as palm oil. We can also direct the yeast towards more rapeseed oil type oil – potential use for biofuels.”
Although many restaurant chains and food companies have promised to source only sustainable palm oil, the development of a suitable alternative would be a great solution to a devastating problem. So far, researchers have only been able to create small amounts of the oil in a lab setting but a $6 million grant issued in December will help the team scale up production.