There’s an ugly truth to the beauty products we slap on our faces and an unsavoury truth to the foods we eat: many are made with palm oil, which is responsible for the rapid deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, destroying the habitat of already endangered species like the orangutan, pygmy elephant and Sumatran rhino.
But now the biotech industry says it has come up with a solution – a synthetic alternative that doesn’t involve burning down or clearing any rainforest. It says this could eventually replace natural palm oil in everything from shampoos, soaps, detergents and lipsticks, to food products like packaged bread, biscuits, margarine, ice cream and chocolate.
“Over the last 30 years, 50% of palm oil plantation growth has come at the hands of deforestation of tropical forest and peatland,” says Shara Ticku, founder of C16 Biosciences, one of the biotech firms pioneering a synthetic alternative. “That is really the core of the problem we’re trying to solve.”
Research is still in a pre-commercial stage, but there’s been high-profile interest in its potential. Earlier this year, C16 Biosciences, a three-year-old start-up based in New York, received a $20m (£15m) investment from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a fund backed by Bill Gates and the likes of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg and Virgin’s Richard Branson.