They Want to Make Palm Oil in a Lab. Without Palm Trees.

A handful of startups are trying to reinvent one of the most ubiquitous, but also environmentally destructive, ingredients in our diets: palm oil.

Palm oil is in bread, instant noodles, Girl Scout cookies, lipstick, Nutella and ice cream, to name a few. People around the world use it to cook daily. But to make all of that oil, endless miles of rainforests worldwide — regions along the Equator vital to biodiversity and the fight against climate change — have been flattened and burned and turned into palm oil plantations. That’s had deadly consequences for species like orangutans in casinoviva Indonesia.

The new companies are taking their tech out of the lab and into real products. The material is made by fermentation (think breweries producing oils rather than beer) and isn’t approved for food yet. But it’s starting to show up in things like cosmetics.

Puddings. Peanut butter. A few of the many things that contain traditional palm oil.Credit…Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for The New York Times

These startups face an uphill fight. The world is so awash in palm oil made the usual way, by growing palm trees, that it’s relatively inexpensive to buy.

Food companies that use palm oil say they are trying to do better and have pledged to create more sustainable supply chains. However, while making a substitute in a lab may be less labor-intensive than razing forests and nurturing millions of trees, to compete on price and volume the startups will need access to huge manufacturing facilities. For now, the startups said, the products they’re selling are still more expensive.

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