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This tree offers an eco-friendly alternative to palm oil and soy

Farmers in Hawaii are cultivating the pongamia, a tree that could prevent further clearing of natural rainforests for palm oil and soy plantations. Its resilient nature could offer a huge economic boost to farmers losing out due to land degradation.

Palm oil is known as one of the most environmentally destructive, yet common and easy-to-miss ingredients in food products today.

This elusive and pervasive ingredient has led to the deforestation of 27 million hectares of forestland, which has been cleared to make space for growing. Palm oil is found hidden in a myriad of well-loved food items, from peanut butter to ice cream and even pizza dough.

Soy’s environmental reputation is just as bad.

Protein-rich soybeans are a key ingredient for plant-based dairy and meat alternatives, but the soy crop is water intensive and has also contributed massively to rising deforestation levels over the last decade.

Ironically, it’s not human appetites that are pushing the demand for soybean. At least 77 percent of soy grown today is used to feed livestock! Talk about a moral dilemma for the plant-based community.

Looking to reduce the global reliance on soybeans and palm oil, research teams based in Oahu are turning to the pongamia tree. This climate-resilient and unsuspecting tree offers virtually the same agricultural output – without the massive carbon footprint.

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Bye-bye palm oil

The plant-based food company Terviva is studying the pongamia tree’s ability to grow in areas where the land has been degraded. What they’ve found is that it has no problem growing in poor soil conditions and requires very little water.

This will come as no surprise to those living in the Indian subcontinent, where pongamia trees are indigenous. Here, there is a long history of using pongamias to replenish soil health, as they thrive even in times of flooding and drought.

Still, pongamia beans have been historically disregarded as edible due to their strong bitter taste. They have mainly been harvested to make varnish or oil for lamps.

But on the plantation in Oahu, the Terviva team has found a unique and simple process to remove the pongamia bean’s bitterness. What results is an omega-rich oil, similar to olive oil. It is nutritionally healthier than coconut oil and contains around 25 percent saturated fat, which gives it a pleasantly smooth texture.

Although pongamia trees must mature for about four years before they can be harvested, they will go on to produce as much oil per acre as palm oil trees. They can also produce four times more beans per acre than soy.

Not to mention, they are nitrogen-fixing – meaning they restore surrounding soils – and studies have shown a single pongamia tree can sequester 767kg of carbon over a 25-year period!

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An economic boost

Considering that the pongamia tree is so resilient and sustainable, Terviva’s team is excited about the economic opportunities the crop could bring to areas experiencing land degradation and even desertification.

While the effects of climate change might be narrowing growing options for farmers, the pongamia tree could be a fantastic alternative – especially once the true potential of its bean is unlocked.

Terviva’s team, which is already making plant-based snack bars and other vegan-friendly foods, is researching ways to create a flour and concentrated plant-based protein that could act as a nutritious meat substitute.

For now, the company has built relationships with communities in India to buy pongamia beans at $500 a ton. For farmers surviving off $1 a day, this new stream of income could be life-changing.

It’s an exciting venture that will surely only continue to grow as the agricultural industry begins to catch on. And it offers a valuable lesson that sustainable and climate-resilient solutions already exist in nature – if we care to look for them.