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 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 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 of 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 current global vegetable oil supply, there is plenty of potential to increase current yields. Palm oil smallholders produce approximately 40% of 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 demand. We will need to innovate and ensure supply from different production sources as well.