QUITO, ECUADOR – Fungi – a kingdom grouping that includes mushrooms, mold and yeast – have long been heralded for their beneficial properties. They’ve been used to soak up oil spills, boost your immune system and lower cholesterol, among other environmental and medical feats. Now, researchers have found one more use for fungi – as a possible alternative to palm oil.
The palm oil industry has a history of association with deforestation and human rights abuses. But palm oil is also one of the most versatile products on the market, found in everything from margarine and ice cream to cosmetics and certain fabrics. One study by the Eden Tree, a green investment group, found that palm oil is found in over 50 percent of food and non-food products in major grocery stores.
So, can fungi offer an alternative oil for these products?
“Technically, yes,” said Melanie Valencia, an environmental engineer from Ecuador and one of the minds behind CarboCycle, a biotech startup that developed the technology to extract lipids from fungi that are similar to palm oil.
“It’s really about how I feed [the fungi],” she said, explaining that the microorganisms actually grow on organic waste.
Numbers from the Environmental Protection Agency show organic waste makes up more than half of solid waste produced in the U.S., and releases harmful methane and carbon dioxide emissions as it sits and decomposes. Recycling the waste alleviates this problem. It’s also an input that’s easy to manipulate – change the waste properties and you can change the kind of oil it produces.
CarboCycle is a project born out of the environmental engineering lab at Columbia University in New York City, through research conducted by Valencia, Kartik Chandran and Shashway Vajpeyi. While not yet out of the lab, CarboCycle has been awarded the Colombia Venture Challenge, while the MIT Technology Review named Valencia one of the Top Innovators Under 35 in 2016 for her role in the project.
Their initial aim wasn’t to develop an alternative for palm oil, but rather to address climate change issues. This is why they ended up with a technology that tackles both deforestation and overflowing landfills, aiming to “close the carbon loop,” as per their organizational motto.
According to Valencia, the biggest ecological problem with oil palm is the enormous amount of space it uses. The total land devoted to palm agriculture spiked between 1990 and 2012, from 6 to 17 million hectares worldwide, according to a recent article in the journal Global Environmental Change. In many cases, industrial cultivation of oil palm trees has led to the deforestation and degradation of rainforest habitat. This has been particularly severe in Indonesia, where millions of hectares of tropical forest – including peat forest, which stores more carbon per hectare than any other ecosystem in the world – have been converted into oil palm plantations.
“It’s taking away the carbon sequestration capacity from a ton of soil,” Valencia said. In this sense, “palm is a bigger threat to our ecosystem than oil,” especially since future projections show that demand for the product is likely to rise, she added…