Coconut Oil Has A Really Horrible Secret

A monkey keeping a close eye on the day's harvested coconuts in Surat Thani, southern Thailand. Thanaboon Jamgrajang/Shutterstock

Coconut oil has recently gained "superfood status" for its much-touted – and much-disputed – health benefits. Unfortunately, conservationists have warned this traditional-turned-trendy commodity also takes a large toll on the tropical ecosystems where it's grown. 

A new paper investigating the ecological impact of coconut oil production concluded that it threatens more species per metric ton produced than any other vegetable oils, including palm oil, a crop grown in the tropics that’s widely known to be terrible news for the environment.

“Many consumers in the West think of coconut products as both healthy and their production relatively harmless for the environment,” Erik Meijaard, lead study author and adjunct professor of Conservation at the University of Kent in the UK, said in a statement.

“As it turns out, we need to think again about the impacts of coconut.”

Reported in the journal Current Biology, an international team of scientists looked at how the agricultural production of coconuts affects species loss. They found that coconut oil affects 20 threatened animal and plant species per million tons of oil produced. By comparison, palm oil production affects 3.8 species per million tons, olives affects 4.1 species per million tons, and soybean oil affects 1.3 species per million tons. Crops such as rapeseed and sunflower had a relatively little impact on biodiversity, affecting 0.04 and 0.05 species per million tons of production respectively.

Global map showing the dominant oil crops per grid cell and bottles representing the number of species threatened by each crop per million tons of oil produced. Erik Meijaard et al/Current Biology/2020

The ecological impact of coconut production is severe because of where the crop is grown. They’re typically cultivated on small Pacific islands, along with other tropical regions, that hold a fragile balance of many threatened species. Disturbing this ecosystem for the purpose of agriculture, therefore, can have a profound effect on the local biodiversity. On the other hand, other commodities such as rapeseed or sunflowers have a comparatively low effect on species because they are primarily grown in temperate steppe and broadleaf forest biomes, where the impacts of farming are less harsh, at least in terms of species impact.

The researchers say they don’t want to start a witchhunt against the humble coconut. They do, however, hope to provide consumers with more robust information about how their food affects the planet.

“Consumers need to realize that all our agricultural commodities, and not just tropical crops, have negative environmental impacts,” added co-author Professor Douglas Sheil of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

“We need to provide consumers with sound information to guide their choices.”

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