Estimating the relative environmental footprints of palm oil and potential alternatives: July 2018 blog entry

8 Oct 2018

The following blog is written by Fiona Sanderson, Senior Conservation Scientist on International Agriculture, RSPB (Project lead for the CCI Collaborative Fund project 'Estimating the relative environmental footprints of palm oil and potential alternatives'). 

Collaborating to explore the impacts of vegetable crops across the globe

This Collaborative Fund project has produced the first assessment of the relative greenhouse gas (GHG) and biodiversity impacts of the five major edible vegetable oil crops (oil palm, soybean, sunflower, rape, groundnut) across the world’s production systems. The research considered both current and potential future production of these crops.

The collaborative nature of this project enabled both biodiversity and carbon experts to come together to produce an analysis of the combined impact of vegetable oil production on GHG and biodiversity. 

All sources of vegetable oil can have serious environmental consequences, including loss of habitats and species, habitat fragmentation, pollution and GHG production. Industrialised countries, with high per capita GDP, tend to be major net importers of biodiversity impacts from developing tropical countries. Edible vegetable oils contribute a significant proportion of this. As a result some organisations have encouraged consumers and businesses to boycott edible palm oil (the most commonly used and thus well-known vegetable oil) in favour of other vegetable oils. However, consumers and businesses may not be aware that different oils have different biodiversity and greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts depending on where they are grown, and in some cases substituting palm oil for other oils may not lead to a reduction in environmental impacts. 

Growing location influences impact more than crop type 

This research found high variation in the impact of vegetable oil production globally. The project included the analysis of the GHG and biodiversity impacts of palm oil imports into the EU, using trade data to link production to imports. The analysis concluded that the GHG and biodiversity impact of growing edible vegetable oils is determined more by growing location than by crop type. These findings suggest that that blanket boycotts of palm oil in food, which continue to be put in place by industries in developed countries, are not necessarily environmentally beneficial. 

Recommendations 

This project recommends that sourcing policy should focus on avoiding particularly environmentally sensitive areas rather than boycotting specific crops. The collaborative nature of this project meant that policy experts, in contact with a variety of different audiences (consumers, businesses, national and international governments) could also be involved in the dissemination of the project’s findings. This has resulted in a draft policy brief summarising the policy position in the context of the paper and summarising the above results for a non-technical audience. This policy brief was prepared by the RSPB, one of the project partners. 

The project team has consequently produced a research paper (currently in review) that compares the global greenhouse gas (GHG) and faunal biodiversity footprint of the five major vegetable oils and assesses how the footprint could be reduced. The paper included an additional assessment of which areas of land degraded by vegetable oil plantations have the greatest potential for restoration, a useful additional output as degraded land is frequently prioritised for agricultural development. 

Degraded land with high potential for restoration should be prioritised for restoration efforts 

Analysis suggests that considering the regeneration potential of degraded land is vital in assessing where best to plant vegetable oil crops to meet future needs whilst limiting both GHG and biodiversity impact. Results also demonstrate that there is high variation in GHG and biodiversity opportunity costs in not allowing degraded land to regenerate, even if its regeneration potential is limited. 

Intelligent sourcing is key

If vegetable oils were more intelligently sourced, their environmental impacts could be greatly reduced. Nonetheless, growing any oils has a negative impact on the climate and biodiversity. Any further expansion must take place in ways that minimise environmental degradation, combat climate change and alleviate poverty, and consumer and industry focus in developed countries should be to reduce edible vegetable oil consumption where possible, without substituting animal fats. Avoiding production of vegetable oils in environmentally sensitive regions, along with supporting regeneration of degraded land with the greatest environmental potential have the potential to significantly reduce the current impact of growing edible vegetable oil. 

All of the project outputs will be available from the project page on the CCI website.