In its latest report, the Edible Fats and Oils Collaboration urges the food and feed industry to consider the sustainability aspects of all fats and oils in one holistic system, instead of vilifying individual ingredients. Forum for the Future's Head of Futures, Ivana Gazibara, shares three questions and five recommendations for food service companies, manufacturers and retailers.


We’ve all seen the videos and the photographs. We’re all haunted by the solitary orangutan attacking a bulldozer. We all know the narrative. Palm oil is a bad oil. And what do you do with bad oils? You boycott and ban them, right? Well, no, it might not be that simple.

Intrinsically, there is no such thing as a good or a bad oil. Of course, there are plenty of bad (and truly destructive) ways to source and produce edible fats and oils, like palm, soybean and dairy butter, but completely boycotting a particular commodity is shallow thinking at its worst. What’s more, it will not help bring about the deep transformation needed for the edible fats and oils sector to become a truly sustainable and equitable food system. These are just some of the key findings from the Edible Fats and Oils Collaboration’s latest report.

Our work in this report flags that we risk worsening the environmental impact of the fats and oils we use every day, unless we start taking a more nuanced and holistic approach to this complex segment of our global food system. It feels positively controversial to say it, but if food companies simply substitute palm oil, for example, with another oil or fat, they might actually, in the long-term, do more damage.

Palm oil, as revealed in the report, is the most productive oil per hectare. No others come close, with rapeseed requiring five times as much land to produce the same volume of oil and soybean oil needing around eight times as much.

Let’s be clear, neither we nor the report are excusing palm oil of the many unsustainable and negative environmental and social impacts that have been associated with its production - like large scale environmental destruction and the violation of labour rights. Nevertheless, the report is asking the industry to consider all the facts before making decisions that can in fact exacerbate and displace environmental damage just in order in to placate a false narrative.

New report: Breaking down fats and oils

Published online this week, our report ‘Breaking down fats and oils, a catalyst to transform the global edible fats and oils system’ aims to be an impetus for the food and feed industries to rethink their current policies and relationships with the vegetable oils and animal fats that we consume globally. More than just driving discussion, the report is a direct challenge to the often-simplistic media and campaign messages on the subject that could actually have unintended consequences.

Unbelievably, the report is a world-first. Never before have the environmental, social and nutritional impacts of the nine major edible fats and oils we consume been analysed in this way. The report considers six factors that affect how we use these commodities: functionality (e.g., taste and flavour); cultural acceptance and taste preferences; nutritional profile; local regulatory landscapes for different oil crops; reputation (particularly relating to environmental and social factors); and price. 

The hard truth is that when it comes to the fats and oils that we use, there are no risk-free choices. Sometimes, like the substances themselves, the issues can be a little cloudy. A substance with a lower footprint in one area often can often have a higher impact in another and, as an integral part of the food system, these ingredients’ individual profiles needed closer scrutiny.

As well as analysing the nine major fats and oils, the report also looks at the potential of novel oils to offer lower-impact alternatives. However, it concludes that while there has been huge investment in developing alternative oils, such algal oils, insect-derived oils and yeast oils on a purely financial basis, it’s currently impossible to produce a novel oil with similar properties to palm or rapeseed oil at anywhere near a viable cost. But if the calls and demands continue to increase for a proportion of our food production to move from land to lab, these emerging solutions could significantly disrupt the current fats and oils system in the future.

Asking questions for deep transformation

But right now, at this moment in time, as we face the increasing risks and impacts of climate change, food service companies, manufacturers and retailers must carefully consider the impacts of all the oils and fats used in their product mix. A joined-up approach is needed, and deep questions need to be asked:

  • How do we source and use all edible fats and oils across any given product portfolio in a way which minimises environmental impact, respects human rights, and improves livelihoods?
  • How might we inspire consumers to eat healthier diets with the right balance of fats and oils?
  • How can we formulate fats and oils into products which support healthy nutritional outcomes, rather than exacerbating health problems such as obesity and heart disease?

We know that, unless we make these dramatic changes to our food system, we can’t remain within 1.5 ̊C of global warming. In that context, there is a responsibility across the full value chain - from producers to traders, and investors to regulators - to play an active role in reappraising our food system. Oils and fats are an integral subsystem within this, and changes to one part of the system impact the whole.

Five key recommendations

This report is a call to action for other deep-thinking organisations to join the Edible Fats and Oils Collaboration in its work. The report makes five clear recommendations for how any organisations can start to improve the sustainability profiles of all fats and oils. They are:

  1. Develop a fats and oils policy to assess and address the full picture of environmental and social risks.
  2. Select suppliers with robust and sustainable supply chains.
  3. Actively engage with and assist organisations and companies driving sustainable production.
  4. Educate consumers on the issues and help to change the one-dimensional narrative about the sustainability of edible fats and oils.
  5. Examine the sustainability of your overall product portfolio by making sure it’s structured to support sustainable outcomes, with priority given to plant-forward foods.

We’ve been chewing the fat for too long when it comes to transforming our food system and now is the time to act. As a society, we must do it by looking at edible fats and oils holistically and with the nuance and open-mindedness necessary. Then, and only then, will we be eventually able to achieve sustainable production, healthy consumption and economic wellbeing in our food system.


The Edible Fats and Oils Collaboration is a global multi-stakeholder initiative that focuses on accelerating the sustainable production and use of edible fats and oils. Its founding members are Forum for the Future; Volac Wilmar Feed Ingredients; independent conservation organisation, WWF-UK; multi-national retailer M&S, global fmcg company, Unilever; global leading plant-based nutrition company, Upfield; and international nature organisation, IUCN National Committee of the Netherlands.