Published on: January 4, 2021
(December 29, 2020) Last month I was invited to do two presentations at my son’s school. The theme was “Sustainable Development”, with a focus on how we can create a positive impact working from new business and collaboration models. The goal: to inspire these 17-year-old students as they choose the next step in their education and motivate them to become leaders of change in the near future.
While preparing for my sessions I realized how the subject of palm oil would spur some interesting debates. This generation is aware of the destruction palm oil causes in rainforests and wildlife habitats, yet unaware of the role palm oil can play in creating a future where we ensure sufficient food and wellbeing, decrease global emissions and protect the earth’s remaining wild nature.
Quest for vegetable oils
The amount of vegetable oils we consume annually is huge. To date, the global annual demand for vegetable oils is 210 million metric tonnes. The projected demand in 2050 is outright staggering. We will be needing around 308 million metric tonnes to satisfy global demand, a growth of 46%. The two main drivers of this increase are population growth — towards 9.7 billion people — and increased per capita consumption.
Just imagine the amount of land we will need to realize this volume if we continue our current strategy of converting forests into additional vegetable oil cropland. This is a path we should have abandoned already. We need different trajectories. An obvious solution is to increase yields on established vegetable oil croplands.
Zooming in on palm oil, which accounts for 40% of the current global vegetable oil supply, there is plenty of potentials to increase current yields. Palm oil smallholders produce approximately 40% of the global supply and their productivity is far below commercial plantations. To effectively boost supply we can support these smallholders in the replanting of their agricultural land with high yielding oil palm species, train them in better cultivation and harvesting practices, provide financial incentives to invest in their farms, and ensure their role in global supply chains. However, this might not satisfy all future demands. We will need to innovate and ensure supply from different production sources as well.
Just as cultured meat offers a solution to the impact of industrial livestock production on nature and climate, lab-based oil innovations offer supply opportunities for personal care, food, animal feed, and biofuel uses. New sources for innovation include extracting oil from insects, algae, microbes, and lignocellulosic waste, removing the burden on land to cultivate input material. C16 BioSciences, a US-based startup, for instance, developed what they call “a technology to brew a sustainable alternative to palm oil from microbes”. This fits the food industry trend to turn to microbial fermentation to develop ingredients that experience supply challenges. Though small in scale to date, these innovations offer potentially interesting alternatives for growing future demand. Whether they will grow into scalable solutions in the near future remains uncertain, but it deserves our time and resources to explore further.
The role of palm oil
As it is unclear how fast new innovations will scale, and whether they will offer the functional benefits we seek, it remains critical that we continue increasing the supply of the vegetable oil crops we are currently using. This will need to be done at the minimal environmental intrusion and pleads the need for palm oil. Palm oil requires far less land to meet future demand than other oil crops. It is a very efficient crop, producing 40% of the global vegetable oil supply while covering less than 6% of the total vegetable oil global crop area. So, while we are developing new production sources to cover future volume requirements, we need to accept palm oil as a future proof source as well. Of course, palm oil supply sources need to be deforestation-free, wildlife-friendly, fair & social.
Our future actions
My 17-year-old students were not aware of the innovations taking place in lab-based food production, whether for meat, vegetables, or vegetable oil. Instead, they are focused on finalizing school and getting into their university of choice. It did however spur the debate I was aiming for, with most of the students intrigued by this novelty. And I am confident they will bring their share of innovation to the world when they develop into our future change agents. Stepping into 2021, let us be change agents as well, by choosing mindfully and adopting innovation when it knocks on our door.
Written by Monique van Wijnbergen, Natural Habitat’s Sustainability & Corporate Communications Director and spokesperson for Palm Done Right.
Palm can be grown for good, bringing benefits to:
Together, we can influence change for: