It's Primates Versus Palm Oil in Africa

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CC BY 2.0. Bernard Spragg -- Baboons in Tanzania

Since both require the same habitat, scientists are worried how primates will survive the expansion of industrial oil palm plantations.

As palm oil plantations spread throughout the African continent, primates will struggle to survive. The two are at odds with each other, according to a new study published in PNAS, since oil palms require the same forested equatorial land that primates inhabit. In order to grow the oil palms, the original forest is cleared and the primates lose their irreplaceable habitat.

This pattern has already been demonstrated in Indonesia and Malaysia, the two biggest producers that supply 30 percent of the world's palm oil. But as less land becomes available in those countries and other tropical countries look for ways to boost their income, it is believed that most future palm oil expansion will take place in Africa.

Scientists are deeply concerned about this because primates in Africa are already in such trouble. Thirty-seven percent of mainland species and 87 percent of species in Madagascar are at risk of extinction, affected by agriculture (including oil palm cultivation), logging, and mining, as well as poaching. Companies have shown unwillingness to compromise by growing oil palms in areas of low importance for primate conservation. From the BBC:

"We found that areas of compromise are very rare throughout the continent (0.13 million hectares), and that large-scale expansion of oil palm cultivation in Africa will have unavoidable, negative effects on primates," said the research team. To put that figure into context, 53 million hectares of land will be needed by 2050 to grow palm oil in order to meet global demand.

Consumers can't get enough of palm oil, which is why environmental concerns fall to the wayside. Production has doubled in the past decade and is expected to double again by 2050. Right now it is the most commonly used vegetable oil in the world and can be found in nearly half of packaged items in most supermarkets. From cookies to cosmetics to cereal to soap, there's a good chance it contains palm oil. It is also gaining popularity as a biofuel.

If the companies aren't paying attention, then consumers need to drive the change. As lead study author Serge Wich said bluntly, "If we are concerned about the environment, we have to pay for it." This means understanding the true cost at which palm oil enters the products we buy and being willing to pay more for ones that have not destroyed primate habitats on their way into our convenience products.

'Clean' palm oil does exist (or at least somewhat cleaner), certified by third-party groups such as the Rainforest Alliance and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), but these organizations cannot keep up with the entire global supply. I prefer to take the "no palm oil at all" approach, reading ingredient lists carefully and avoiding products that contain it, since sourcing is such sketchy business. (Read: 25 sneaky names for palm oil)

Read the full study here.