The Palm Oil Apocalypse
Words by Tim McDonnell
Photographs by Thomas Albdorf
Shara Ticku’s journey to the cutting edge of biotech started in a thick, toxic cloud.
In June 2013, a vast blanket of smog settled over five countries in Southeast Asia. The cloud pushed concentrations of toxic air pollution to record levels, shuttered schools, and prompted government warnings that pregnant women should stay inside.
Ticku was in Singapore at the time, working on a maternal health project for an international nongovernmental organization. She realized how serious the situation was when her team was issued gas masks. “It was totally shocking. It was something I couldn’t even really process,” she says. “That was the first time I heard the words ‘palm oil.’”
The haze, it turned out, was caused by a series of out-of-control wildfires on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo, which were largely attributed to the clearing of rainforest for palm oil tree plantations. As Ticku soon learned, palm oil is simultaneously one of the world’s most ubiquitous agricultural products and one of its most destructive natural resources.
Ticku was struck by the inherent social inequality within palm oil production: It’s a crop that, in this time of precipitously rising food insecurity, can only be grown at near-equatorial latitudes—yet it mainly feeds demand for processed foods, cosmetics, and biofuels in the Global North. “We’re using some of our most valuable arable land to make an oil,” she says. “This doesn’t make any sense at all.”
To Ticku, a health researcher with a grounding in science and a Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial confidence, palm oil seemed like a product that could be made better—and more profitable—in a biochemistry lab.
African oil palm, Elaeis guineensis, and a few other oil-producing palm species are grown widely across Southeast Asia, West Africa, Central America, and the West Indies. The oil produced from their fruits—stained red by high levels of beta carotene—is found in everything from frozen pizzas and packaged donuts to lipstick and soap, laundry detergent and biofuels to animal feed and cooking oil. It’s cheap, odorless, and withstands high temperatures. Globally, palm oil plantations cover an area around half the size of France. The world consumed nearly 70 million metric tons of it in 2018, more than any other vegetable oil, and the rate is quickly rising.
But over the last several years, fires and haze linked to palm oil plantations have resulted in more than 100,000 deaths and $30 billion in economic losses in Indonesia. Palm oil is a top driver of deforestation in Southeast Asia and a threat to nearly 200 vulnerable or endangered species, including orangutans, gibbons, and tigers. And the greenhouse gas emissions from palm oil-related deforestation and fires in Indonesia alone have at times exceeded those of the entire US economy.
In response, a growing number of agribusiness corporations, including Mars, Kraft, and Nestle, as well as thousands of banks, retailers, civil society groups, and other institutions, have signed on to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a nongovernmental certification board that requires its members to uphold high standards of transparency, environmental protection, and labor rights. One-fifth of the world’s palm oil supply is certified by the RSPO.
“We’ve seen a dramatic amount of progress in terms of focus and attention from the industry in the last few years,” says Anne Rosenbarger, Southeast Asia commodities manager for the World Resources Institute. “There’s reason for optimism. But now, we’re dealing with actually implementing these commitments across the supply chain.”
So far, that implementation has been slow. A 2018 Greenpeace report found that many of the most prominent companies that committed to sustainable palm oil sourcing—including Mars, Kraft, and Nestle—still do business with “dirty” producers. In June, an industry survey by the Palm Oil Transparency Coalition, an independent watchdog group, found that most palm oil producers and traders expect to miss their self-imposed target to eliminate deforestation and labor abuses by 2020. Meanwhile, an untold number of small-scale oil palm farmers remain left out of reform efforts.
The solution isn’t as simple as switching to another oil. For all of its faults, palm oil is a relatively efficient crop. Producing the same amount of oil from coconut or soybean plantations would require up to 10 times the amount of land. A report last year from the International Union for Conservation of Nature found that alternatives to palm oil would invariably result in increased deforestation and threats to endangered species and concluded that “palm oil is here to stay.”
Ticku and a handful of her peers in select biochemistry labs and start-ups around the world imagine a different future. They’re at the vanguard of an emerging industry that aims to use oil-producing organisms like algae and yeast (in some wilder cases, even carbon dioxide and coffee grounds) to bio-manufacture oils that can outcompete palm oil on sustainability, flavor, function, and cost.
In theory, the basic science is simple: Choose a species from the known array of “oleaginous”—oil-producing—microorganisms, feed it a good meal (sunlight for algae, sugar for yeast), and collect the lipid molecules that come out the other end. Tweak the meal recipe and the conditions in which the organism grows, carefully breed the individuals that produce the best oil, and eventually cultivate a herd of hardworking microscopic organisms.
For now, these technologies remain confined to labs rather than commercial production facilities, so you’re unlikely to encounter synthetic palm oil at your supermarket anytime soon. And because no comprehensive industry data exists, it’s too soon to say how big of a bite synthetic oils might be able to take out of the global palm oil industry.
But as a result of mounting public pressure on companies that use palm oil and a rising level of government and investor support for cutting-edge biotech, synthetic oils could be on the verge of a breakthrough, says Ivana Gazibara, associate director of Forum for the Future, an international sustainability nonprofit that is in the midst of a market research campaign on alternative oils. “The potential is huge to move so much production off the field, out of the forest, and into the lab,” she says.
In 2017, a few years after her trip to Singapore, Ticku met Harry McNamara, a biochemist, as classmates in a course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called “Revolutionary Ventures,” which grappled with how cutting-edge technologies make their way from idea to marketable product. One of the professors, Joseph Jacobson, had helped invent the “e-ink” screens that are commonly used on e-readers.
They found themselves talking about palm oil. McNamara had also been shaken by a close-up experience with it, when he flew over a plantation carved into the jungle in Costa Rica. Both had watched the recent high-profile debut of Impossible Foods, the producer of the Impossible Burger, and thought that a similar approach could work for palm oil.
“We view palm oil as a market failure,” Ticku says. “Everyone knows the way we produce this stuff is terrible. But I don’t expect people to change their behavior just because we know palm oil is bad. We need to meet consumers where they are. We need to make something as cheap or cheaper that can be produced sustainably. It’s the only way to solve this problem.”
The pair decided to collaborate, founding a company, C16 Biosciences (the name is a reference to the chemical formula for palmitic acid, the essential ingredient of palm oil), and setting up shop in a Cambridge tech incubator lab. They settled on yeast as the host organism and set about refining the producing process. The details remain a closely guarded secret, but Ticku says they took cues on what not to do from the algae-based biofuel industry, which attracted a lot of press attention and venture capital in the 2000s but struggled to reach cost parity and break into the mainstream.
In June, the company moved to a sparkling new lab space in lower Manhattan supported by New York University’s Langone Medical Center, where it hopes to work out some final kinks with a fresh staff of eight biologists. One of their biggest challenges is what to feed the yeast: Sugar, the traditional food, is both costly and has its own environmental issues. C16 hopes to replace it with food waste, sourced from restaurants, breweries, and other processing facilities in the New York area. Ticku plans to have a commercial product available by summer 2020, first in cosmetics and hopefully later in food.
Ticku says her team doesn’t believe that the biggest palm oil-consuming corporations will be willing to pay much, or any, of a cost premium for a sustainable oil and that they are committed to beating palm oil’s price. But whether that will be possible is still unclear. Gazibara says most of the alternative oils she’s researched are still three to four times the cost of palm oil, due to the expense of maintaining industrial-scale lab equipment and the still relatively low volume of oil that microorganisms can produce compared to trees. Kourosh Salehi-Ashtiani, a biologist at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus who is working to produce alternative oils from algae, says his process could be up to 10 times the price.
Until one of the labs and startups working on alternative oils upgrades to a large-scale production facility, it will be hard to know how the cost will truly shake out, Gazibara says. “There’s a lot of innovation but very little information about how these technologies stand up economically,” she says. “How market-ready are they? No one really knows right now.”
Cosmetics make sense as a starting point, Gazibara says, because they face lower regulatory barriers than food and companies are more able to experiment with ingredients. But since most of the volume of palm oil consumption is in food, that sector will need to be the ultimate target if synthetic alternative oils want to make a big environmental impact. “Where we really need to see scale is in food,” she says. “But that’s where you start to see higher regulatory barriers and a much more risk-averse industry.”
However, biotech is a rapidly evolving industry, Ticku says, and in the case of palm oil, may be able to advance faster than agronomics and forest policy in the countries worst affected by its production. “We’re working as fast as we can to get a product to market,” she says. “People wanted a solution to this problem yesterday.”