Research: Rampant growth in vegetable oil production threatens wildlife

A new report on global biodiversity, co-authored by a LJMU professor, calls for greater international cooperation to mitigate the threat of oil crops on biodiversity.

The Oil Crops Taskforce report for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says oil crops, such a palm oil, rapeseed, soybean and others now occupy roughly 37% of the world’s agricultural land, with oil demand is growing a further 14% increase by 2050.

Professor Serge Wich, who collaborated with an international team of experts for this report, contributes regularly to the IUCN’s Red List – a guide to the planet’s most threatened and engendered species and is an expert on apes, particularly the critically-endangered orangutan.

He says the threat to biodiversity is clear if society continue to clear natural areas for vegetable crop production.

“While vegetable oils are an important part of a healthy diet, the production of oil crops has a range of environmental and social impacts.

“We can limit the impacts of vegetable oils on biodiversity if sustainable production methods are used, the expansion of oil crops into natural ecosystems is prevented, current yields are increased, oil crops are primarily used in food rather than as animal feeds or biofuels, and if synthetic oils become available in much greater volumes.”

The IUCN Oil Crops Taskforce was established by the IUCN Secretariat, the IUCN Species Survival Commission, the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management and the IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy.

The report, published in collaboration with the Sustainable Nutrition Scientific Board, states that mitigation of impacts on natural habitats vary greatly according to 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.

“We see 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,” said Erik Meijaard, report lead author

“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.”

“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.

Dr Meijaard says the biggest expansion is likely to be in Africa. "An important question then becomes which crops and food systems would best be used to minimize harm and maximize benefits. While our report is yet unable to provide clear recommendations in that regard, building on existing agricultural expertise among smallholder farmers and the crops they are already familiar with, appears to incur the least social and environmental harm."

An IUCN report in 2018 found that palm oil is damaging global biodiversity, with 193 species assessed as threatened on the IUCN Red List affected, including orangutans, gibbons and tigers among species suffering severe harm.


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