It’s no secret that coconut has recently seen a boom in worldwide demand. The fruit, important to many tropical cultures for generations, has experienced a surge in interest from Westerners. And it’s no wonder that people all over are suddenly going coo-coo for coconuts; the stuff is positively amazing! Coconut milk, sugar, and flour are all appealing to consumers needing or wanting alternatives to the conventional forms of these staples. Coconut water is touted by many as an ideal aid in hydration. And a quick internet search will reveal numerous ways to use coconut oil in the kitchen, the bathroom and even, ahem, the bedroom. Coconut is truly a wonder crop and a very welcome alternative for those looking to lead a more natural lifestyle. But at what cost does our coconut addiction come to people and planet?
Where Do Coconuts Come From? And How Do We Use Them?
Coconuts are native to coastal southeast Asia and spread throughout the tropics via ocean currents and human migration. While natives to the tropics have truly tapped into the many uses of the coconut as well as the trees they grow on, Westerners have demands for just a few of the secondary products the crop can produce. Drying coconut meat results in a product called “copra” which is then pressed to extract coconut oil. Coconut water is obtained from the liquid inside young, immature coconuts. And coconut milk is extracted by squeezing fresh coconut meat. Together these products are offering consumers more choices in their quest for natural alternatives in their diet, personal care, and lifestyle.
We may feel as though we’ve struck gold in such a versatile product. But what is the cost to the environment?
According to the World Watch Institute, food transportation is quickly becoming one of the world’s fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Diets that rely heavily on foods that come from other parts of the world contribute enormously to these emissions. Sadly a diet filled with coconuts falls under this category.
First, consider the fact that, unless you live in a tropical habitat where coconuts are grown locally, the coconuts and secondary products you use probably have to travel from far-off places. In 2013 (the most recent data available), the FAO found Indonesia, the Philippines and India to be the leading producers of the commodity. So, your use of coconut is more than likely going to require some fossil-fuel input for transportation as you won’t be finding it in your weekly CSA box.
An additional concern is the fact that packaging is needed to boost shelf life and aid in the transportation of the product. Tetra pak pouches, plastic bottles, and glass jars all require inputs to manufacture and transport. And they can become an environmental nuisance when they don’t reach recycling facilities that can properly process the discarded materials. Pacific Garbage Patch, anyone?
Coconut Farming and the Environment
Negative environmental impacts of the coconut industry can also be traced directly back to the coconut farms themselves. As with other trends or fads in foods, monoculture farming has become an issue in areas where coconuts are grown. As the coconut tree ages, it becomes less productive. This motivates farmers to plant more and more coconut trees to maintain a constant stream of product. Replacing native plants and biodiversity to meet the demand for coconuts, can take a major toll on the soil, leading farmers to turn to chemical fertilizers to boost their productivity.
With increased demands for production, some governments have rolled out plans to subsidize chemical fertilizers for farmers. With a cheap alternative to organic farming methods, environmental protection can take a backseat while farmers focus on cutting costs. As with any agricultural endeavor, there is a threat to local biodiversity as well as soil, water, and air health when chemical inputs are introduced.
So, What Will You Do?
Given how far removed the Western consumer is from the growth and production line of the coconut, some may choose to abstain from the crop’s use altogether. Similar to other crops such as coffee and bananas, coconut doesn’t exactly fit into a diet and personal care regime sustained entirely on a local scale if that’s what you’re aiming for.
However, not everyone is willing to dismiss international crops entirely. If you’re still interested in partaking in the benefits the coconut has to offer, here are a few simple tips to make your choice an environmentally-friendly one:
- Buy organic. Buying coconut products that are certified organic helps ensure that the local ecology and people weren’t put at risk from chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
- Buy Fair Trade. Many coconut suppliers are receiving Fair Trade certification which not only indicates that the farmers receive ample compensation, but also that their farming methods take environmental sustainability into account. Because farmers are being paid more, they are less likely to overgrown monoculture coconut crops and destroy local biodiversity.
- Get educated. Research the company or companies you’re buying coconut products from to find out whether or not your moral concerns are in line with their business practices. Find out how transparent they are willing to be with their supply line and make sure they are worthy of your money and devotion as a consumer.
- Mind the mess. This rule holds true for everything you consume, coconut products included. Make sure you’re properly disposing of any containers or packaging in the most environmentally-friendly manner available to you. And seek to reduce packaging where you can.
The coconut can truly be seen as a blessing given its versatile uses and benefits. Just make sure you are taking into consideration the backstory of your coconut products so that the planet and its inhabitants aren’t suffering as a result of your choices.
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