06 Mar 2019 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Sustainable trade as a means to protect biodiversity

Photo by James Anderson, World Resources Institute

“There’s a rang-tan in my bedroom and I don’t know what to do,” the small girl says. The rang tang replies, “there’s a human in my forest and I don’t know what to do.”

Does this ring a bell? It originates from an advertisement of a British supermarket chain, subsequently banned from television in late 2018, announcing it would no longer sell products that contain palm oil. The banned ad had received enormous attention on social media channels. But why the big deal?

More than 50 per cent of packaged products sold in supermarkets in the United Kingdom and many other countries contain palm oil. Indeed, palm oil is the most produced vegetable oil in the world and demand is expected to rise further. Between 1980 and 2014, palm oil production increased 15-fold from 4.5 million tonnes to 70 million tonnes. Not only is palm oil widely used as a cooking oil in many Asian and African countries, it is also used globally in a huge variety of products, including food and cosmetics, and as animal feed and biofuel.

Palm oil provides an important source of revenue in many low-income countries growing the crop, thus contributing to economic development. Also, as an incredibly efficient crop, palm oil supplies 35 per cent of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just 10 per cent of the land. However, as more palm oil is being produced, it requires more land to grow on. As oil palms usually grow in tropical regions, which are very rich in biodiversity, expanding production volumes have knock-on effects on forests and natural habitats in parts of tropical Asia and Central and South America, and may thus result in biodiversity loss. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that expansion of oil palm plantations could affect 54 per cent of threatened mammals and 64 per cent of threatened birds globally.

However, palm oil is not the only commodity that has been linked to biodiversity loss. Other agricultural commodities, such as beef, cocoa, coffee, or soy, which are traded globally, also cause concern. Through global patterns of consumption and production today, powered by trade, global developments such as population growth, or a shift in consumer lifestyles, can affect biodiversity and human livelihoods in regions that are producing these goods in fundamental ways.

What can we do about it? Simply replacing one good by another is often not the answer. Today, multiple initiatives have emerged that are looking to make the trade in agricultural commodities more sustainable across the value chain.

To further support evidence-based policymaking, UN Environment is partnering with the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) and many other partners to launch a new five-year project aimed at making trade a force for good, that can enhance economic development benefits in producer countries, while minimizing biodiversity loss. Project activities of the “UK Research and Innovation Global Challenges Fund (UKRI GCRF) Trade, Development and Environment Hub” started in February 2019. As part of this project, UN Environment’s Environment and Trade Hub will work together with partners from over 15 countries to support research teams in designing and delivering policy-relevant research, and contributing to solutions to support livelihoods and biodiversity conservation, linked to global trade in commodities such as palm oil, beef, coffee, cocoa and soy, as well as wildlife and wild meat.


If you are interested to receive more information or be added to the project mailing list, please contact Elena Antoni.