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Green Is The New Black

Bill Gates Invests $20 Million In Sustainable Palm Oil: Is It Enough?

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Bill Gates

Hot on the heels of Jeff Bezos’ $10 billion donation to fight climate change, comes Bill Gates’ $20 million investment in sustainable palm oil. But even with all this cash flying around, is it enough to solve the problem?

Deforestation, haze, human death and animals driven to the brink of extinction are but a few consequences of palm oil production. As big corporations start to feel the heat from consumers about their damaging practices, we dig deeper into the feasibility of change.    

The problem with palm oil

Ever since other vegetable oils were deemed unhealthy, palm oil has taken the top spot on the ingredient lists of everyday products. From Nutella and Colgate toothpaste to Revlon cosmetics; palm oil is used in around 50% of consumer products (according to Palm oil investigations). The huge demand for palm oil not only causes mass deforestation and wildfires. But it also presents many social challenges such as worker exploitation and conflicts with indigenous communities. 

In light of these issues, in 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil created a sustainable certification system (RSPO) to encourage palm oil producers to take action and change their destructive practices. However, 16 years later, it’s clear that wasn’t enough.  

So, what exactly has Bill Gates invested in?

A lab-grown sustainable palm oil invented by New York-based startup c16 Biosciences. The company is using technology to brew palm oil from microbes with raw materials such as excess food from supermarkets and glycerol from biofuels production. This should allow for competitive pricing and lower environmental impact. According to c16 “brewing palm oil like beer is the best and most likely path to developing a truly sustainable palm oil alternative.” 

But, as stated in Bloomberg Green, c16 Biosciences can currently only produce around 10kg of synthetic palm oil per week. And here’s where Bill Gates’ investment comes in. The extra $20mln (which, to be completely accurate, comes from Breakthrough Energy Ventures) will allow the start-up to increase production up to 1000kg per week.

Is that enough to change the industry?

The CEO of c16 Biosciences, Shara Ticku, shared with Fast Company that its strategy is to start small but go fast to market. With one tonne per week production, the start-up will be able to initiate commercial supply to companies with smaller demand for the production of personal care products. Ticku also actively communicates that the start-up’s real mission is to end deforestation. However, the palm oil production that’s currently linked to deforestation constitutes around 2-3% of the world’s deforestation as confirmed by The Conversation. For now, it seems c16 Biosciences will only solve a small part of the problem. 

The good news is, other companies are developing similar technologies which may help further advance the supply of this innovative resource. Will this drive the industry towards more significant changes? Watch this space.

How can you contribute to change? 

By taking #LittleGreenSteps such as:

– Choosing products without palm oil or those that are certified sustainable.

– Limiting your consumption in general by only using what you really need.

– Supporting organisations that are fighting for change like WWF.

Plus, have a read of this if you want to know more about what we’re getting wrong about palm oil.


Lead image courtesty of Sebastian Derungs, swiss-image.ch.

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World traveller, fashion lover, and always full of ideas. As she learned the environmental impact of her two favourite things, largely thanks to GITNB, she continues to look for ways to improve. Whether it's shopping second hand, recycling or planting trees; she’s on it. There is no better satisfaction for her than learning and getting to the bottom of things - that’s where the passion for writing came from. She still has a long way to go in every aspect of her life, but she’s enjoying the journey.