Cheap fat may 'spell doom' for Africa's great apes

Scientists warned Thursday that a palm tree with an oily fruit might “spell doom” for Africa’s great apes, thanks to demand for palm oil, a cheap fat often used as a replacement for trans fats.

The rise of palm oil mirrors the decline of hydrogenated, trans-containing fats. Last year, Americans consumed 1.12 million metric tons of palm oil, up from 600,000 in 2006 — when trans fats were first labeled — and 85,000 in 1996.

Oil palm trees grow best in wet, tropical environments. Ninety percent of the oil from their fruit is produced and consumed in Southeast Asia.

But that land is running out.

The demand — and lack of space — has led palm-oil planters to Africa, where tropical forests are burned down to clear the land. The destruction of such a diverse ecosystem for palm oil is a “biologist’s worst nightmare,” said Serge Wich, professor in primate biology at Liverpool John Moores University in England and lead author on the study.

“Everything is flattened, often burned. There are scars of burning that is completely devoid of anything. It’s like a biodiversity disaster zone,” Wich said. “It’s quite hard to see.”

The study, published Thursday in Current Biology found that 60 percent of African palm oil plantations overlap with the tropical rainforests where endangered great apes live: chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. For the bonobo, a peaceful chimpanzee species, there is an 80 percent overlap.

Palm oil is a popular ingredient in commercial snack food — cakes, cookies and salty snacks — because it stays solid at room temperature and doesn’t spoil on the shelf. It’s also full of saturated fat, making palm oil an arterial burden.

“Higher intake of saturated fat is associated with cardiovascular risk factors. Palm oil is extremely high in saturated fat,” Alice H. Lichtenstein, senior scientist and director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University, said.

Yet, tropical oils such as palm oil are now the “main option” for long shelf-life foods John Coupland, professor of food science at Penn State University, said in an email. Animal fats are more expensive and regarded as unhealthy, he said, and trans fats are “effectively prohibited” in the United States.

“Hence, palm plantations springing up across Southeast Asia,” Coupland said.

Oil palm agriculture represents a major economic opportunity for impoverished regions, Wich said. That growth could be steered to spare the great apes.

“I think the driver is more that there’s more people and more that are becoming wealthier and consume more. It’s quite a cheap oil that makes it attractive,” Wich said. “Great apes do not live in oil palm plantations, that’s why it’s a problem.”

The study said tax incentives could steer palm oil expansion onto vacant land and improve yields on current plantations. African oil palm plantations are half as efficient as those in Southeast Asia.

“Great apes are our closest relatives on the planet. If we lose them, we lose an enormous opportunity to learn about ourselves, Wich said. “That will be a real shame.”

Reach reporter Gavin Stern at gavin.stern@scripps.com or 202-408-2735. SHFWire stories may be used by any news organization that credits the SHFWire and gives the reporter a byline.

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