Rising global demand for vegetable oils has accelerated deforestation, claims a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) – but there are deforestation-free alternatives available for businesses.
About three-quarters of the world’s vegetable oil is currently used for foods, the report says, and demand has grown at about 5% a year for more than a decade. A preference for packaged foods has come as the global middle class has grown – and demand for the vegetable oils used in those foods is expected to continue along the same trajectory for the coming ten years.
According to the report, much of the land for vegetable oil, especially palm and soybean oil, has been at the expense of tropical forests.
“Although only two vegetable oils (palm and soy) have directly caused tropical deforestation during the last decade, increased demand for any oil can potentially increase tropical deforestation,” the report says, explaining that as demand for vegetable oil goes up, so does supply – and most of this supply is likely to come from palm oil, considering that it tends to be the cheapest to produce.
“There are, however, ways that companies involved in the vegetable oil supply chain can help ensure their oils are deforestation-free,” it said.
Commit to deforestation-free
Options for businesses that buy vegetable oils include building strong relationships with suppliers, and committing to sourcing only deforestation-free oils.
“Alternatively, businesses can also switch to vegetable oil inputs that do not directly cause deforestation (e.g., corn, sunflower, rapeseed) if they are not able to find deforestation-free sources of soy or palm,” the UCS said.
Not that simple?
Nathalie Lecocq, director general of FEDIOL, the federation representing the European vegetable oil and proteinmeal industry, said she did not contest that land expansion for growing oilseeds may be partly to blame for deforestation, but added that this should not be oversimplified.
In particular, she pointed out that one vegetable oil cannot always be substituted for another, given their unique nutritional and functional characteristics.
“A vegetable oil which is solid at room temperature cannot be replaced by a liquid oil without consequences on the structure of the food,” she told FoodNavigator. “Hence, since we need a comprehensive basket of vegetable oils, we better work on improving the sustainability of the whole production chains.”
She said the organisation has been involved in discussions intended to set mainstream sustainability criteria, including with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the Round Table for Responsible Soy (RTRS) and the Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) Roundtable.
“Over the last years, governments and private business initiatives have done much to increase environmental consciousness of actors in the chain, improve governance, strengthen legislation, enforce it and effectively sanction those that violate the law,” she said.
The UCS suggests that consumers also have a role to play in pushing for deforestation-free oils. However, Lecocq said their role should not be overplayed.
“We should wonder whether driving a change through niche market developments is the most cost-efficient for our supply chains and for the EU consumers and as effective in addressing the real issue,” she said.
The full UCS report is available online here .