Blog post

Appetite for change: global supply chains of palm oil, beef and soy and their role in tackling deforestation and climate change

Eleanor Glover, Chatham House
28 Jan 2016
The changing global palm oil trade, 2000 and 2014

What have instant noodles got to do with climate change? You may not have considered the link between the speedy, savoury snack and rising global temperatures, but noodles are just one of many products made with palm oil, the production of which - along with that of beef and soy - is a huge contributor to deforestation and thus a major source of greenhouse emissions.

A new paper titled ‘Agricultural Commodity Supply Chains: Trade, Consumption and Deforestation’ from the Energy, Environment and Resources department at Chatham House investigates the global production, trade and consumption of palm oil, soy and beef and assesses their links to deforestation. It also examines how governments, corporations and civil society are addressing the issue as demand for these commodities continues to grow.

As the paper points out, recent studies estimate that agriculture is responsible for between 53 per cent and 80 per cent of total worldwide deforestation and the three most significant contributors – palm oil, beef and soy – accounted for an estimated three-quarters of deforestation associated with agriculture between 1990 and 2008.

Palm oil production more than doubled over the period 2000–13 as global demand for products that contain this versatile ingredient – processed foods, cosmetics, detergents, paints and biofuels – increased. It is estimated that half of all packaged products sold in supermarkets contain palm oil. The EU has long been the world’s largest importer of palm oil, but demand is rapidly growing in India and China as growing populations and incomes in those countries lead to a shift in diet towards processed foods.

Instant noodles – made up of about 20 per cent palm oil – are a prime example of the growing global appetite for processed foods. According to the new Chatham House paper, instant noodles have good reason to claim to be regarded as the world’s most successful industrial foodstuff: the world slurped its way through almost 103 billion packets in 2014 –that is the equivalent of 14 servings for every person on the planet.

Demand for palm oil is putting increasing pressure on the world’s forests as new frontiers are found to produce the commodity. Although Malaysia and Indonesia account for more than 80 per cent of global palm oil production, other countries – including Thailand, Nigeria, Colombia and Cameroon - are breaking into the global market.

At the same time, there is growing pressure on forests from soy and beef production. The production of soy has roughly doubled, too, since 2000, as demand for this protein-rich commodity has increased. Predominantly grown in the US, Brazil and Argentina – more than half of Argentina’s agricultural area is now dedicated to cultivating soy, as is 80 per cent of Paraguay’s – soybeans and derivatives are used in animal feed and biofuels. China was the main importer in 2014, closely followed by the EU. 

Unlike palm oil and soy, in recent years beef production has grown only slowly. However, a European Commission study in 2013 on the impact of EU consumption on deforestation found that ruminant livestock – mainly beef cattle – together with the production of cattle feed, had the biggest impact of any agricultural product, accounting for almost half of global deforestation.

The globalized nature of agricultural supply chains requires an international response, and governments and corporations are increasingly recognizing the role that forests have to play in combatting climate change. In 2010 nearly a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions were associated with land-use change, primarily to agriculture. For its part, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that this share will increase to 30 per cent if current trends continue.

The prevention of deforestation and forest degradation is high on the international political agenda; it will be crucial for meeting global objectives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as set out in the December 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement as well as for achieving the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals. Corporations are recognizing the need for a more sustainable approach to agricultural production, and many companies have made commitments to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains.  

We do not know, of course, if delegates at December’s climate change conference in Paris were tucking into bowls of instant noodles. But – joking aside – the new Chatham House paper emphasizes that if world leaders and corporations are indeed serious about reducing global temperatures, the question of how to meet demand for agricultural commodities without driving further deforestation needs to remain a priority.