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Forum for the Future Presents Fatty, Oily Challenge to Global Food, Ag Value Chain

Building on the work of Protein Challenge 2040 and Feed Compass, this three-year, global initiative is focused on accelerating the sustainable production and use of edible fats and oils.

Fats and oils are an essential part of a healthy and nutritionally balanced diet for both humans and livestock — but the way we’re producing and consuming them around the world is one of many unsustainable aspects of our current food system.

As UK-based sustainability nonprofit Forum for the Future points out, declining biodiversity, competition for land, climate change, water stress and human rights abuses in the supply chain are some of the many challenges surrounding the production of edible fats and oils. There are also consumption and nutritional challenges: Poor diets have resulted in a double burden of malnutrition and obesity; people eating the right fats and oils, in the right quantities, is a critical part of responding to this public health challenge.

Along with their health impacts, there is little widespread understanding about how the different industrial fats and oils stack up against each other in environmental and social terms. Instead, public debate is often simplified and polarized into “good vs bad” fats and oils, with palm oil receiving the most scrutiny, for its association with deforestation and other environmental impacts. But it’s not that simple.

Obviously, no single crop can solve the multiple complex challenges facing the sector. The whole system of edible fats and oils must be considered in order to respond adequately, which is why Forum for the Future is inviting actors from across the value chain to join the Edible Fats and Oils Collaboration.

Building on the work of Protein Challenge 2040 and Feed Compass — a series of food-system collaborative challenges the UK nonprofit has launched in the past few years — with the help of partners Marks & Spencer (M&S), feed ingredients giant Volac-Wilmar and WWF, this three-year, global initiative is focused on accelerating the sustainable production and use of edible fats and oils.

Forum for the Future says the Collaboration will develop a holistic framework for assessing the sustainability and nutritional profile of different fats and oils, which will involve mapping major edible fats and oils against that framework, as well as identifying key alternatives and their market potential, from algal to yeast-based oils.

The goal is to then share these insights widely amongst industry and other key stakeholders and influencers, in order to:

  • inform the sourcing and formulation practices of major food brands and retailers;

  • identify and get commitment around investment policies and reporting mechanisms, which will accelerate sustainable fats and oils production;

  • provide recommendations for exemplar policies that can support a step-change in the sustainability of edible fats and oils.

Together, Forum for the Future says the group will aim to develop a better understanding of the sustainability and nutritional profiles of fats and oils, shift industry practice, shape investment policies and legislation, and help bring new innovations to scale.

“M&S has been working on the sustainability challenges surrounding palm oil for many years, but over recent years we have seen increased use of other oils — whether that be for reasons of health, diet or functionality. This is both driven by product formulation and by customers wanting to cook with different oils such as coconut oil,” says Hazel Culley, Senior Sustainability Manager at M&S. “Many of these oils have equally complex supply chains, sometimes with little to no regulations or sustainability focus. We want to ensure that that there are no unintended consequences of switching or developing new formulations and are therefore supporting the Edible Fats and Oils Collaboration, as we cannot address these issues on our own and would like to work with others to do so.”

Greasing the wheels

The collaboration will examine palm, as well as soy, rapeseed, olive, sunflower and coconut oils. Global consumption of major vegetable oils for food has more than tripled in the last 30 years, with palm and soybean oil accounting for nearly two-thirds of volumes produced and sold; both are under increasing scrutiny for their association with environmentally damaging practices and human rights abuses. Alternative oil crops such as rapeseed do exist, but these often require more land, and experiments with lab-based alternatives such as algae are promising but not yet at scale. The future success of businesses that use large volumes of edible fats and oils will depend on secure access to supply chains that are low-carbon, free from deforestation, and that respect biodiversity and human rights. As with many agricultural sectors, understanding the interconnected, complex nature of the challenges facing the edible fats and oils sector is a vital starting point for actors from across the value chain to get this system onto a sustainable footing.

Forum for the Future is inviting food and agricultural companies from across the supply chain — along with NGOs, investors and policymakers — to join the effort to map a future full of healthy, delicious, sustainable fats; and reap the myriad benefits inherent in leading the market.

“Rising population, global warming, the erosion of natural capital and human health challenges are all playing their part in what many believe to be an inevitably bad outcome for our planet earth. But is this outcome really inevitable? Some of us believe that collaboration between business, governments, NGOs, academia and investors is now more important than ever, and I believe that we can influence the future,” Andy Richardson, Head of Corporate Affairs at Volac-Wilmar, says in a report produced by the Collaboration. “Following on from the collaborative success of The Protein Challenge 2040, we now want to look at edible fats and oils globally and holistically. We want to examine the supply chain from production to consumption, and understand what collaborative interventions can be made to achieve a positive outcome for consumers, business and the world. This new collaboration offers a huge opportunity for organisations to step up and take bolder action. Please join us on our journey.”

To find out more, contact Ivana Gazibara, Associate Director of Forum for the Future UK: [email protected].