Global demand for vegetable oils has recently increased, which impacts not only the global economy, but also the atmosphere and ecosystems. Increasing demand for vegetable oils has traditionally translated into demand for more land to grow oil crops.
Over the last decade much of that land has come at the expense of tropical forests, and this is particularly true for palm and soybean oil.
This loss of tropical forest means a loss of precious biodiversity and the ecosystem (e.g., water cycle maintenance, potential sources of new medicines) and contributes to global climate change. Tropical deforestation accounts for about 15 percent of annual global carbon emissions.
Fats and oils can come primarily from either animal (e.g., tallow, butter) or vegetable sources from oil crops including oil palm, soybeans, rapeseed (also called canola), and others like olive oil and corn oil.
Along with carbohydrates (sugars and starches) and protein, oils and fats are essential to our diet. Vegetable oils are also found in thousands of products we use and consume every day, from cookies and cooking oils to shampoo and laundry detergent.
Increasingly, they are being used to fuel cars, trucks, and in the future, even airplanes. Countries around the world produce, consume, import, and export these oils in vast quantities.
The recent dynamics of the oilseed market and the demand for vegetable oil have been largely driven by the expanding populations and economies of developing countries, particularly India and China. Government mandates for biodiesel in the European Union, and to a lesser extent in the United States and elsewhere, are also expanding demand for vegetable oil.
Solutions for deforestation-free vegetable oils
In order to help mitigate the worst effects of climate change and to address the growing demands of global consumers for deforestation-free products, businesses today are searching for alternative sources and modes of production of vegetable oil, and there are many ways that companies can ensure their products are deforestation-free.
Producers of vegetable oils grown in tropical locations can still continue to grow these oils while avoiding deforestation. They should pledge to only expand new production onto non-forest lands and work to increase crop yields through a combination of improved breeds and management practices.
Businesses that buy vegetable oils should commit to sourcing only deforestation-free vegetable oils. This can be accomplished by establishing strong relationships with their suppliers to help ensure that any palm or soy oil being sourced is not driving deforestation. Alternatively, businesses can also switch to vegetable oil inputs that do not directly cause deforestation (e.g., corn, sunflower, rapeseed) if they are not able to find deforestation-free sources of soy or palm.
Governments can establish biofuel regulations that support forests and aim to reduce carbon emissions. Additionally, they can utilize policies like agricultural zoning that discourage agricultural development near forests.
Consumers can buy deforestation-free products whenever possible, demanding that more companies make public declarations to go deforestation-free, and then hold them to their word. Further, they can push for biofuels regulations that actually reduce emissions and keep pressures off forests.
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