Viability of synthetic palm oil versus natural palm oil

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Dr Mohd Khairuddin Aman Razali is Malaysia's Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities (MPIC) and Dr Kalyana Sundram is the Chief Executive Officer, Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC). [Shutterstock/muhd fuad abd rahim]

For several decades now, and ever since the early 1980s, palm oil has been called out as a problem for a number of different reasons, write Dr Mohd Khairuddin Aman Razali and Dr Kalyana Sundram.

Dr Mohd Khairuddin Aman Razali is Malaysia’s Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities (MPIC) and Dr Kalyana Sundram is the Chief Executive Officer, Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC).

First it was its nutritional and health effects – too saturated and posed a risk for human heart health. Next it was its wanton destruction of rainforests and the demise of the iconic orangutan.

Then it was its sustainable production requiring industry to volunteer towards NGO driven certification systems. This was followed by an epic debate around its use as a biofuel and reducing carbon emissions. Most recent noise, propelled the debate about 3MCPDE, marked as a possible pro-carcinogen in humans.

Dr Mohd Khairuddin Aman Razali

So in the face of all this you would be forgiven into thinking that palm oil’s use and its survival could be limited in the longer term.  Think again! Because no less than the investment arm of “Bill Gates Breakthrough Energy Ventures”, was reported to have sunk $20 million into a start-up company, C16 Biosciences, to produce synthetic palm oil. For those of us working diligently in the “natural” palm oil supply chain, this was something of a rude joke indeed. Why should such an investment, be seen as a saviour, at the opposite side of the globe where natural palm oil is cultivated, primarily 10 degrees North and South of the Equator?

To begin with, it appears that Bill Gates and C16 Biosciences believe that they can overcome many of the negativity surrounding palm oil. After all, today more than 6 out of 10 products requiring a fat component are formulated with palm oil based components. The world produces nearly 75 million MT annually, which is almost 32% of all global oils and fats produced. Lest we forget, this is in reality produced on less than 0.4% of our overall cultivated global agricultural land. So already, the numbers are falling apart for a successful synthetic palm oil creation, or is it really viable?

Nature has a very curious way of managing its mammoth garden and surrounding environment. In the current midst of our battle to overcome the Covid19 viral pandemic, let us simply be reminded about the sway that nature holds over all of us. In our assessment, C16 Biosciences may actually succeed in generating the core straight chain fatty acid molecules that are the backbone of palm oil and indeed all oils and fats. But is that enough, knowing that science can also produce such carbon chain fatty acid molecules from various other processes and means.

There are so many other intrinsic difficulties that will come with trying to copy nature’s palm oil. For example, the intricacies and complexities of nature’s triglyceride species patched to a glycerol molecule and present in palm oil through varied configurations can hardly be fully duplicated by current technologies. Mostly, nature seems to be the sole patent holder for successful permutation of such molecular triglyceride species.

Why is this so important? Take the case of saturated fats and human blood cholesterol response. American lipid specialists pushed the idea that saturated stearic acid was cholesterol neutral whereas palmitic acid found in palm oil was cholesterol elevating. They went ahead and created an artificial, fully saturated tri-stearic triglyceride through process technologies.

The truth was that nature and human metabolism hardly tolerated too many of such molecules. A lot of money and hype from America was ultimately shot down through a single Malaysian human dietary study (Sundram et al., Nutr Metab. 2007;4:3. doi: 10.1186/1743-7075-4-3.) that showed the wisdom of sticking with nature’s palm oil fractions versus the artificial fat concoction. The question is will C16 Biosciences ultimately fall into a similar dead-man’s paradox?

We think there is far better use for the $20 million. Why are the likes of Bill Gates and other Western venture capitalists or start-ups reluctant to work with people who know the subject far better? Actually, this is not the first time. On a previous occasion, we were chasing a CSR program that proposed the use of red palm oil to overcome vitamin A deficiency in children from malnourished populations.This was backed by a hoard of studies in several developing countries and reviewed by eminent experts including the late Prof. Nevin Skrimshaw, and late Prof. David Kritchevsky. We never got an audience with the likes of the Bill Gates Foundation despite their stated interest to overcome this malice that impacts millions of children facing onset of blindness. Are we missing the boat?

The likes of C16 Biosciences should nevertheless be credited for thinking out of the box, but we do not necessarily agree that they will generate the global opportunity that could limit the use of natural palm oil. Even if they succeed given the very large odds stacked against such a technology, their impact upon natural palm oil supply chains will be minimal. The hype created in various Western media around this sounds like another stab wounding aimed at the palm oil industry.

For starters, it is impossible to imagine the investment that will be required for processing facilities that could say aim to address just 10% of the current 75 Million MT global palm oil output. What would be the costs, the carbon footprint of such processes and how would waste streams from such operations be accounted for. Many unknowns at this stage that are largely daunting and gigantically against such an innovation achieving global scaled commercial reality.

Dr Kalyana Sundram

More astounding is that the funders may have missed the work that has already gone into such ideas. Take Malaysia’s investments into the future of palm oil. As a nation, Malaysia has led the scientific entrepreneurship in palm oil with several hundred millions already expanded into various R&D programs. These have often partnered some of the best research institutes from around the world. For example,  Malaysian Palm Oil Board scientists succeeded in the mapping of the oil palm genome and published in Nature (2013, 500, 335–339 https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12309). What this also means is that we are already empowered with the tools of the trade that should allow achieving accelerated progress in many fields unlike a start-up company.

At this stage, when global resources are so limited, we would respectfully like to call upon all parties to seek mutual collaboration for the betterment of humanity. And not to use innovative opportunities as a chance to back stab sustainable palm oil production and its supply chain.

Opportunities nevertheless abound and we remind readers that if you visit the oil palm plantations, the actual oil (palm oil + palm kernel oil) output per hectare is just 15% of the mass balance turnover in the plantation. There remains 85% unexploited, mostly biomass that nature in its own wisdom has produced. Hidden nuggets of gold are yet to be found in these but which remain unexploited. For example, our research team identified and patented (U.S. Pat. No. 9,963,415, 2017) from palm oil waste stream, the active ingredient in Tamiflu vaccine that previously was sourced from Chinese aniseed.

his again was a collaboration with MIT USA. On hind sight, and faced with the current Covid19 pandemic we should have pushed further for the development of an anti-viral vaccine based on this finding. But as a small developing nation, Malaysia lacked the resources but we will go back to revisit this. Here may lie an opportunity for the likes of “Bill Gates Breakthrough Energy Ventures”.

Overall, we can only wish the best to C16 Biosciences in its endeavours and even will be prepared to work with them if desired. Unlike the Western media, we do not see this as a threat to natural palm oil supply chain particularly when produced under best agricultural practices and sustainability standards such as what is quickly becoming the norm for Malaysian palm oil industry through its own Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification standard.

Let us thus exit these discussions with an open invitation towards collaboration in any palm oil related opportunity that aims to bring betterment to humanity as a whole.

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