AFRICA – A new study forecasts a rise in palm oil plantations across Africa as the global demand for the commodity continues to grow, as the continent offers the low-lying tropical ecosystems palm oil prefers, hence an opportunity for businesses and local farmers to generate income.

According to FoodingredientsFirst, lessons learned from Southeast Asia, where most oil palm plantations are located, has prompted an international team to assess the potential impact on primates of an expansion in oil palm cultivation in Africa.

The new study – which examines palm oils potential effects on Africa’s biodiversity – closely follows global investors calling for stronger standards from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

More than 90 institutional investors representing more than US$6.7 trillion in assets have called on the RSPO to strengthen its standards for certifying the sustainable production of palm oil.

In the study from CIRAD – Agricultural Research for Development, the researchers set out to identify “areas of compromise” in which oil palm cultivation would be most productive while having little impact on primates.

They concluded that such areas were rare across Africa, covering only 0.13 to 3.3 million hectares (Mha).

There are only 3.3 million hectares available with little impact on primates.

In total, according to the study, 273 Mha of land could be planted with oil palm in Africa: 84 Mha with low yields, 139 Mha with average yields and just 50 Mha with high yields, because of local soil and climate criteria and assuming crops are solely rain-fed with intermediate use of inputs.

Companies growing palm oil are looking to expand into Africa prompting concern from conservationists.

Currently, the majority of the world’s palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Although growing palm trees requires less land and resources than traditional vegetable oils, the cultivation of palm oil is a primary cause of tropical deforestation, particularly in these countries.

Palm oil plantations replaced 2.7 million hectares of tropical forest between 1990 and 2005, leading to a loss of biodiversity and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

“If we combine these figures with the data on primate vulnerability, oil palm could only be grown with little impact on primates on 3.3 Mha.

That figure drops to 0.13 Mha if we only consider high-potential land,” said Ghislain Vieilledent, CIRAD ecologist and co-author of the study.

Those figures of 3.3 Mha and 0.13 Mha correspond to just 6.2 percent and 0.2 percent respectively of the demand for additional land by 2050, given that 53 Mha of additional land is forecast to be needed by then.

There may be mitigation strategies, but the impact remains high.

“One potential mitigation strategy would be to identify alternative trajectories for agricultural expansion, using ‘smart’ criteria to minimize and delay the loss of primate home range as much as possible,” said Vieilledent.

FoodingredientsFirst added that palm oil, how it is sourced, where it comes from and the farmers and small communities of grower countries have been heavily scrutinized in recent years as industry steps up efforts to clean up the supply chain.

There is also significant pressure from non-government organizations and environmental groups like Greenpeace which continually investigate the palm oil supply chain.

“The knee-jerk reaction is, ‘if this stuff is bad why not stop buying it,’ but of course, there are perverse incentives.

You do this and that will incentivize something that is worse. More messages are coming out from academia and civil society saying that banning palm oil could lead to worse impacts than what we have now,” said Webber.

Initiatives such as the RSPO should also be supported, with a strengthening of the environmental component of this certification.

Another possible solution lies in reducing future demand for palm oil in the northern hemisphere by raising consumer awareness and seeking alternatives to biodiesel.

However, given the population growth expected across Africa over the next 30 years and the increased food consumption, the effects could be limited.

There is already momentum for change and the researchers hope their findings will contribute to this.

The researchers focused on primates because they are a good indicator of overall biodiversity.

“There is a correlation between primate diversity and the richness of species in other taxonomic groups.

They play an important role in seed dispersal and in maintaining the composition of forest ecosystems,” added Vieilledent.