04/04/2012 03:49 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2012

How EPA Can Balance Economic Development and Environmental Justice for the World's Poor

The recent success of the viral video "Kony2012" reminded Americans of just how precarious the lives of so many millions of Africans are today. While the continent has made great progress recently, for too many residents their future is marked by poverty, conflict, lack of opportunity, and starvation, particularly for Africa's women and children.

The hope for Africa is that it can leverage its considerable endowments -- its arable land and the hard working nature of its people -- to kick start sustainable economic growth and realize food and economic security.

The United States (including private businesses) can help with these efforts. For example, we can provide technology and know-how. We can provide foreign direct investment, too.

Perhaps most importantly of all we can open our markets and purchase goods and services from Africans. By providing a market for Africa's male and female entrepreneurs, we can help generate the growth and stability that's needed so badly across the continent.

For that reason, the recent EPA decision to discriminate against palm-derived biofuels under its renewable fuels standard is a mistake. The EPA must be unaware how critical palm oil and other plantation-scale agriculture efforts are to Africa's future.

While not widely known in the United States, palm oil is a popular vegetable oil from Asia to Africa to Latin America. Like our vegetable oils -- canola and soy, for example -- palm oil has many uses. It is a nutritious and caloric-rich food; it can also be turned into bio fuel to meet the world's growing need for renewable energy.

This versatility makes it very attractive to farmers who can satisfy different markets, and to investors who like the flexibility and diversity it provides.

It's worth noting that the palm oil industry is a significant employer in West Africa. Nearly 2 million people in Nigeria alone work for the palm oil sector. The industry is also growing significantly in Liberia, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone.

But we have only scratched the surface of what palm oil might do for African workers. A growing, thriving palm oil sector provides not just needed food and fuel to feed and power Africa's rise. It also provides a valuable export crop, thus enabling African countries to establish trade relationships with the United States, Europe, and Asia.

Palm oil is important to Africa's small farmers, particularly Africa's women farmers. This is no small thing given cultural norms and attitudes toward women in Africa are not what they are in wealthy countries such as the United States. Palm oil provides jobs and badly needed skills to help women with little education and few assets or ways in which to make a living. This kind of economic empowerment is essential for helping the poor and historically disenfranchised make a better life.

The history of economic development shows that those countries with abundant land must utilize it to realize their full economic potential. This was true for the United States in its early development. According to the World Bank, the agriculture sector is three times more effective at reducing poverty than any other sector in developing countries. This highlights the importance of the palm oil industry's expansion to economic prosperity in the region.

The EPA believes it is acting in the interest of planetary health as it should. But limiting the economic prospects for Africa's poorest people to feed themselves and support their families is no way to address the planet's ecological needs. What poor countries need in order to ensure environmental health is economic growth and food security. The environment and human development should flourish together, not the environment at the expense of human development.

Follow former Congresswoman Clayton on Twitter @evamclayton