IUCN report: Better production practices key to minimising impact of vegetable oils

Globally, vegetable oils account for over 37% of agricultural land use. This number is expected to increase, and with it the possibility that oil production negatively impacts biodiversity. A new IUCN report, published today by the IUCN Oil Crops Task Force, examines global oil production and what is needed for a sustainable future for oil production.

Header photo: Orangutans have suffered greatly from habitat loss and fragmentation caused by oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia © e-smile, 2019, Pixabay.

The report found that growing demand for vegetable oils could translate into the conversion of natural areas into farmland, negatively impacting global biodiversity, particularly where biodiverse environments are displaced. But there is potential to limit harms to nature by improving production methods, while meeting a growing global demand.

Environmental impact of vegetable oils

Fats are an important component of the human diet, and our modern intake of fat primarily comes from vegetable oils. At the same time, the production of all vegetable oils can have severe environmental impacts – especially when produced industrially in large monocultures. Globally, expanding agriculture is the principal cause of biodiversity decline, a major contributor to nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and is linked to land degradation and freshwater depletion.

Intensive land management means less biodiversity

The extent of these negative impacts is largely dependent on production practices. A consistent pattern emerges from scientific studies: the more intensive the land management – including monoculture practices, irrigation, and the absence of nearby natural vegetation – the lower the biodiversity. On the other hand, good practices, such as regenerative agriculture, agroforestry and agrochemical standards can reduce impacts on biodiversity.

Figure from IUCN report: Exploring the future of vegetable oils

IUCN NL’s Heleen van den Hombergh contributed to the report, especially to the chapter on governance and global trade. ‘A key takeaway is the need for a combination of mandatory and voluntary governance instruments. Transparency and improving traceability is critical, as it enables informed decisions and helps hold producers, investors and buyers accountable; however, transparency without assurance of compliance with sustainability norms is not enough’, says Van den Hombergh. She adds: ‘Sustainability of vegetable oils is a matter of the right place, management and scale of production.’

Oil crops offer opportunities for biodiversity

Vegetable oil production plays a crucial role in helping feed a growing population, but it also has significant environmental, social, and economic impacts, especially when pursued on an industrial scale. These impacts include deforestation, loss of species and ecosystems, agrochemical pollution and climate change, all growing as demand for vegetable oils soars. But this report shows that oil crops themselves are not inherently good or bad, and positive environmental and social outcomes can be achieved with all oil crops.  With the right investment, planning, policies and improved crop production methods, oil crop areas can offer substantial opportunities for reducing biodiversity loss and restoring nature’, says Erik Meijaard, report lead author and co-chair of IUCN’s Oil Crop Task Force.

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