Sign Up Early for SB'24 San Diego and Save! Spring Rate Ends June 23rd.

Supply Chain
Holistic Solutions Needed to Future-Proof Edible Fats & Oils Industry

The Edible Fats and Oils Collaboration urges the food and feed industry to advocate for new policy that considers the sustainability aspects of all fats and oils in one holistic system, instead of vilifying individual ingredients.

Boycotts and bans on specific fats and oils are an oversimplified solution to a complex problem, reveals a new report published today by multi-stakeholder initiative, the Edible Fats and Oils Collaboration — a multistakeholder collaboration launched in 2019 by Forum for the Future.

Breaking down fats and oils calls on food businesses to view our most popular and sometimes problematic fats and oils — including palm, soybean, coconut and olive oils and dairy butter — not in isolation, but as part of a bigger, holistic system in order to create sustainable, future-proof supply chains.

The Edible Fats and Oils Collaboration include food and ingredients producers Volac Wilmar, M&S, Unilever and Upfield; and NGOs WWF-UK and IUCN-NL.

The report is the first analyzes all the major vegetable oils and animal fats consumed globally as one system, presenting a comparison of their environmental, social, nutritional and financial impacts. It argues that nuance, context and in-depth assessment are needed to assess all factors, both positive and negative, associated with each ingredient.

As Ivana Gazibara, Head of Futures at Forum for the Future, explains:

“The food system’s entire value chain must align around the same goal: feeding a growing population in a way that is healthy and allows people and planet to thrive. Edible fats and oils play an integral part in this food system, but the debate has been siloed and disjointed. The food industry must work together and build capacity for more joined-up thinking on how to make the fats and oils sector more sustainable. We believe that this report provides a specific starting point for food companies to do exactly that.”

The fact is, some of the food industry’s attempts to cultivate and produce fats and oils more sustainably have risked worsening their environmental and social impacts. As the report asserts:

  • all vegetable oils and animal fats present both advantages and disadvantages. Focusing on single crops, and substituting one oil for another, may produce unintended negative impacts elsewhere;

  • the food system’s entire value chain must align around the same goal: feeding a growing population in a way that’s nutritious, equitable and within planetary boundaries;

  • millions of people around the world rely on growing oil crops for their livelihood. However, too many of them live in poverty and work in extremely poor conditions;

  • expansion of oil crop production onto areas of native vegetation affects indigenous peoples and local communities who may be evicted from the land and lose their livelihoods.

The rising temperatures, water shortages and extreme weather events associated with climate change will add further pressure on the fats and oils system, production and livelihoods. To meet these challenges, the report recommends that fats and oil sustainability requires collaboration across whole landscapes, jurisdictions and supply chains.

The report brings nuance and balance to what has become a binary debate. For example, palm oil production has been globally vilified due to its role in rampant deforestation, biodiversity loss and human rights abuses. More and more companies have worked, both individually and together, to create sustainable systems for palm production; but, many have opted to simply replace palm oil with another oil or fat — which is likely to exacerbate the issues around palm production; no other oil crop is nearly as productive as palm, so they require exponentially more land and resources to produce.

The report aims to challenge the overly simplistic media and campaign messages around contentious oils such as palm that could have unintended consequences; and instead, seed a new narrative — underpinned by a systemic approach, that considers the trade-offs of using one product over another.

Sabrina Goncalves Krebsbach, Agricultural Commodities Specialist at WWF-UK, says: “Conversations about the sustainability of edible fats and oils can cause heated debate – with palm oil, in particular, having a terrible reputation because of its links to the destruction of precious forests and peatlands — but ill-advised substitutions can lead to even worse environmental consequences. For example, producing equivalent amounts of alternative oils such as soybean or coconut oil would require four to ten times more land, shifting the problem to other parts of the world and threatening other habitats and species.

“Companies must step up their sustainability efforts and take a more holistic approach to sourcing edible fats and oils – ensuring they use or sell products that harm neither the environment, nor people. This report will help companies to make better informed, more sustainable sourcing decisions; considering all environmental, social, nutritional and financial impacts.”

The global edible oils market was value at roughly US$97 billion in 2019, and is expected to rise to around US$119 billion by the end of 2025. The vegetable oils market is anticipated to grow by 3.3 percent per year between 2020 and 2027, largely driven by continued growth in both population and diets containing these commodities.

Heleen van den Hombergh, Senior Advisor Agrocommodity Governance at IUCN-NL, says:

“Governments, financial institutions and companies all have to take into account the interrelatedness of the edible oil crops on the global market, especially their ecological and social connections. From the Indonesian tropical forests to European forests, there's a need to focus on sustainable production and consumption rather than exclusion, as no one oil crop is the sole problem or silver bullet to sustainable land use or fair trade.”

The report is a call to action for the food industry to band together to create a holistic future trajectory.

“Fundamentally, there is no such thing as a good or bad oil; there is only good and bad oil production and consumption,” Gazibara added. “While there’s no simple, risk-free option; there are ways to make better choices that account for interconnected environmental, nutritional and social effects. The report’s aim is to help the food industry seek out deep, transformative and lasting change for the edible fats and oil sector and move away from current shallow and short-term solutions driven by bans and boycotts.”