Sustainability is not a zero-sum game, dialogue and flexibility are keyBY Benedetta Annicchiarico

Leggi in italiano

Sustainable palm oil supply chains, like those of many other products, are a valuable ally in the fight against deforestation, in biodiversity protection, and emission reduction: one simply needs to abandon a zero-sum game vision of sustainability to take the opportunities offered by sustainable production


Oil palm is the world’s most popular among vegetable oils and fats, especially in Africa and South-East Asia where, according to a study by the Oil Palm Task Force of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), more than 70% of families claim to have consumed it over the three previous months. For billions of consumers, it represents the primary source of saturated fats, which should account for about 10% of our daily caloric intake according to the World Health Organization. Demand for palm oil is all but increasing and it estimated to reach over 300 million tons by 2050 compared to today’s 70. Any attempt to stop such a trend and to change consumer preferences of half the world’s population, all to create an illusion of ecologism with “palm oil free” campaigns, is guilty of a myopic vision of sustainable development.

Indeed, banning palm oil would mean turning to other oils to satisfy the world’s demand for it. Because substitute oil cultivations are up to 10 times less productive than palm, it would also mean clearing out further land to convert for agricultural purposes and increasing total carbon footprint. It looks like a lose-lose situation: traditional farming pollutes and drives deforestation, but alternative crops with alternative methods are just as ecologically dangerous, if not more, and do not get us closer to the goal of zero deforestation.


And yet, this dilemma has a simpler solution than we might think in the form of sustainable production (and certification) of commodities with an otherwise high environmental footprint. Going back to the palm oil example, the impact of certified standards on its supply chains is clear: since 2019, members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, who awards sustainability certificates, have reduced their CO2 emissions by 190 thousand tons, the equivalent emissions of about 41 thousand vehicles combined. For what concerns the other great sin of traditional intensive farming – the disregard for laborers’ rights and conditions – there is great room for maneuver before ditching a crop altogether. As shown by Colombian and Indonesian smallholders over the course of Competere’s latest seminar, sustainable agriculture produces positive social externalities, from legal working standards to a higher rate of school attendance.

The real challenge is making most, if not all, global supply chains abide by harmonized sustainability standards. The European Union is going in the right direction with its New Forest Strategy, which aims to create a new certification scheme for imported goods that attests to responsible land use and forest management, thus strengthening the legality and traceability of products that land on the common market. Measures like these can, however, create a highly complex trading environment and an increase consumer prices, which in turn could discourage sustainable production among millions of smallholders around the world who, in the case of palm oil, account for almost half of global production. Looking at the opposite end of the supply chain, importers of certified commodities might be skeptical about displaying a sustainably-sourced brand on their products out of fear of calling consumers’ attention on an ingredients that have been greatly contested by the larger public because of their environmental impact.


Marrying sustainability and development is possible but not feasible, unless we are willing to abandon simplistic catch phrases and a zero-sum game mentality in favor of a more nuanced and flexible approach to sustainability and to trade regulations, thus avoiding exclusionary and counter-productive practices. Some supply chains, if sustainably transformed and guided by scientific research, can foster a reconciliation more easily than others: those are the opportunities to seize if we want to come prepared for our 2050 appointment.

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