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

May 8, 2024

The ever-growing demand for vegetable oils is causing more and more natural areas to be converted into farmland. This can have a negative impact on biodiversity worldwide. But there are opportunities to reduce damage to nature by improving production methods while meeting a growing global demand. This is according to the report Exploring the future of vegetable oils published today by the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Oil Crops Task Force.

In that report, the authors assess the future ecological, economic and social impacts of vegetable oil production, trade and consumption. From Wageningen University & Research (WUR), Verina Ingram, Andrea Ismael Diaz, Maja Slingerland, Sinnead O'Keeffe and Douglas Sheil are involved in the study.

Globally, vegetable oil crops account for over one-third of all agricultural lands, and the areas allocated for oil crops are continuing to expand. In 2021, 252 million tons of oil were produced for a population of nearly 8.5 billion people. To feed the projected population of 9.7 billion in 2050 (assuming no further oil is redirected for biofuel, animal feed or in industry) production output will need to rise by 14% to 288 million tons.

Oil crops account for one-third farmland

The land expansion needed to meet this demand will harm biodiversity if ecologically diverse areas are replaced with plantations. The scope for such land use changes is highest in Africa and South America, while boreal ecosystems in Russia and Canada are also under increasing pressure.

Douglas Sheil (WUR): ‘The future production of oil crops has huge implications for the environment, sustainable development and our food. If we want to encourage good practices, we need to focus on production practices, not the crop itself. Information is essential, there is much we do not know. While research is essential, traceability and transparency are also essential. Accurate data on production practices and their impact would help make informed choices that benefit the environment and people. This report is our first attempt to provide an overview of these crops, practices, impacts and standards and what best can be done.’

Negative impact biodiversity

According to the report, the negative impacts on biodiversity are closely tied to production methods regardless of the type of oil crop. For instance, where and how an oil crop is planted, owned, managed, traded and consumed, as well as the scale and the specific landscape within which these crops are produced, all influence its impact.

Erik Meijaard: “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 what this report shows is 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,” said Erik Meijaard, report lead author and co-chair of IUCN’s Oil Crop Task Force.

Increasing production?

However, production could be increased while minimising the expansion of crop land, according to the authors. For example, smallholder oil palm growers attain only about 42% of the potential yield, and closing this yield gap could increase production on existing land.

“It is clear that if current agricultural practices prevail, we will see forests, shrub, grass and freshwater ecosystems continue to be converted into farmland. This could cause further declines in populations of animals, fungi and plants. Conversely, if oils are produced using improved farming methods, the gains for biodiversity, livelihoods and human wellbeing could be enormous,” said Jon Paul Rodriguez, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission.

STAR metric

To estimate the potential benefits of conservation and restoration in oil crop production zones, the report applied the Species Threat Abatement and Restoration (STAR) metric to global areas where 12 different oil crops are grown. The STAR metric, which assesses the potential of actions in specific locations to contribute to reversing global biodiversity loss, suggests that these zones have a critical role to play in helping deliver the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) – the international agreement committing nations to halt and reverse nature loss by 2030.

Conservation action in these areas could deliver 2% of the total global opportunity for reducing the extinction risk of threatened birds, mammals, and amphibians through addressing threats, and restoration actions in oil production areas could achieve 5% of the global opportunity available through restoration – although these figures vary depending on the region, with some areas particularly in Africa and Asia representing a greater potential for nature restoration. Conservation and restoration of habitat within the coconut production zones alone could deliver an estimated nine and 12 times more reduction in global extinction risk than would a similar effort applied randomly across the world.