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New Study: Making French Fries with Cottonseed Oil Could Significantly Reduce Climate Change Impacts

US-produced cottonseed oil’s advantages come from sharing cultivation impacts with cotton for textiles, and long-term impact reduction efforts by cotton producers

With the average American consuming 39 pounds of French fries annually, and McDonalds alone serving up some 9 million pounds a day around the world, the vegetable oil used for frying those potatoes is a big business — and a significant contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

French fires by iiliv-sonos acorn

As brands in the food sector seek to lower their GHG emissions, there is increasing interest in lower-impact vegetable oils, and a need for science-based data that can inform planning and decision-making. A team from EarthShift Global and the Cotton Inc. not-for-profit research organization (https://www.cottoninc.com) provides just that in a new article, Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of Edible Vegetable Frying Oils (https://elibrary.asabe.org/abs...), which finds that US-produced refined cottonseed oil (CSO (U.S.) offers substantially lower climate change impacts than common frying oils like palm, soybean, and canola.

Writing in the journal Transactions of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, EarthShift Global senior sustainability advisor Valentina Prado and CEO Lise Laurin and Cotton Inc.’s Jesse Daystar, Steven Pires, and Michele Wallace found that CSO (U.S.), as a byproduct of cotton lint production, has a potential environmental advantage over other vegetable oil feedstocks because the impact of cotton cultivation is split between cotton lint (used in the making of textiles) and seed (taking 16% of cultivation impacts under an economic allocation approach).

US cottonseed oil also benefits from a successful 35-year effort by cotton producers that has consistently reduced environmental impact in terms of land use, soil loss, water use, energy use, and GHG emissions.

While acknowledging that “no single oil had a preferred performance across all the environmental impact categories,” the study did find that cottonseed oil “was consistently among the top two oils in six of the eight [environmental] impact categories. When the alternatives were ranked, CSO (U.S.) had the highest likelihood of ranking first.”

Cottonseed oil’s advantage is particularly strong in GHG impacts. The article states:

“If a fast-food chain switched to refined CSO (U.S.) from [globally sourced] soybean oil, the GHG impact would be reduced by 83%, switching to refined CSO (U.S.) from palm [sourced from Indonesia and Malaysia] reduces the GHG impact by 78%, and switching to refined CSO (U.S.) from canola [U.S.-sourced] reduces the GHG impact by 72%.”

Such a shift from other single-source oils would result in an absolute reduction of 0.27 to 0.53 kg CO2 per kilogram of French fries, says the article. Extrapolating that to McDonald’s daily production of 9 million pounds would result in CO2 emissions being reduced by 1,130 to 2,188 tons per day.

The article, which is available as open access from the journal’s site, concludes, “For fast-food chains seeking to reduce their climate change impacts, the use of refined CSO (U.S.) for frying applications can reduce the carbon footprint of a very popular food product (French fries). The potential savings have a wider reach and can be useful for consumer products to reduce the impacts associated with vegetable oil use. Regardless of the application, it is important to consider other impact categories with high opportunity for improvement, such as water use. In fact, one of the key lessons of this study is that most of the impacts of vegetable frying oils are due to the cultivation phase, which reinforces the need for continuous improvement in agriculture.”