PARIS — Africa could offer supply to meet the growing global demand for palm oil, but oil palm could be cultivated in only a few areas on the continent without affecting primates, according to a study from the European Commission Joint Research Centre and Paris-based CIRAD (French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development).

Oil palm supplies about 30% of the world’s vegetable oil. Global demand for alimentary use, including food, is projected to double from 2005 to 2050, according to the study, while future demand also could increase for its use in biofuel.

Much oil palm is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia, but the industry has been blamed for deforestation, leading to a loss of habitat for orangutans, in those two countries. The study examined Africa as another sourcing option, combining information on land suitability for oil palm cultivation with primate distribution, diversity and vulnerability.

Published Aug. 14 in PNAS  and found here, the study claimed less than 10% of the land in Africa is suitable for oil palm cultivation, including 2.8% (84 million hectares or 208 million acres) with a low suitability to grow oil palm, 4.6% (139 million hectares) with a medium suitability and 1.6% (50 million hectares) with a high suitability.

Reducing the suitable area to hectares with low-primate vulnerability, only 3.3 million hectares would be available, including 130,000 hectares of land with a high suitability to grow oil palm. The study said 53 million hectares of additional land for oil palm cultivation will be needed to meet demand by 2050. The figure of 3.3 million hectares would correspond to 6.2% of the demand for additional land. The figure of 130,000 hectares would correspond to 0.2%.

Mitigation strategies and levers might improve the situation in Africa.

“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 Ghislain Vieilledent, an ecologist for CIRAD and co-author of the study.

Levers for conserving African biodiversity could come from using high quality seed and adopting better agricultural practices, he added.  Other actions could involve supporting the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil as well as reducing future demand for palm oil in the Northern Hemisphere by raising consumer awareness and seeking alternatives to biodiesel. However, such effects could be limited because of the population growth expected across Africa over the next 30 years and the demand for food that would accompany the growth.