A research team led by Woods Senior Fellow Rosamond Naylor (Earth System Science) has won a $400,000 multi-year grant to study how to create sustainable palm oil supply chains that promote economic growth and environmental sustainability in Indonesia and West Africa.

Palm oil has become one of the world’s fastest growing and most valuable agricultural commodities. Global production of palm oil doubled in both volume and area each decade between 1970 and 2010, and is expected to double again by 2025. The windfall profits from this rapid expansion have come at a cost of tropical deforestation, biodiversity loss and rising greenhouse gas emissions, and in many cases the economic benefits have bypassed local smallholder farmers.

"When we talk about sustainability in the palm oil industry, we mean more than saving trees," said Naylor. "The question we are getting at with this project is how can the industry boost rural incomes and alleviate poverty among smallholder farmers, while also reducing deforestation and carbon emissions. We are able to tackle this problem from social, economic and environmental angles because we have a truly cross-disciplinary group of researchers. That's a key strength of this team, and a key strength of Stanford."

Naylor and her team of Stanford faculty, scholars and students will undertake the three-year project with funding from the Stanford Global Development and Poverty Initiative (GDP), launched in Spring 2014. GDP aims to transform Stanford’s capacity to speak to the challenges of poverty and development. This year, GDP awarded more than $2 million to 13 faculty research teams from across the university.

Other awardees include teams led by Woods Senior Fellows Craig Criddle (Civil and Environmental Engineering), Giulio De Leo (Biology), Jenna Davis (Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Peter Vitousek (Biology). Criddle's project will test the use of biogas to increase incomes and business opportunities as well as improve the reliability of the food supply in South Asia. De Leo is forming an interdisciplinary research group designed to advance understanding of the ecological and economic drivers of "poverty traps" – cycles of poverty that arise from the interactions among disease, economic productivity and human and natural capital. Davis and her team will pilot a market-based approach to sustainable sanitation in urban slums. Vitousek will investigate influences on China's investment in African agriculture (Read more about these and other awarded projects.)

The palm oil project marks the first venture that connects Stanford’s expertise in sustainability with the Graduate School of Business’ experience in value chain innovations. The team will conduct an evaluation of value chain opportunities for sustainable palm oil production, build corporate partnerships to improve smallholder incomes, and engage in policy advising.

GDP is a joint initiative of the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies (SEED) and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI). SEED is housed within the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Naylor is director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment, William Wrigley Professor of Earth System Science and senior fellow at FSI.