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Does coconut oil really threaten more species than palm oil? No, it doesn’t. (commentary)

Coconut palms

  • A brief study recently published by the journal Current Biology examines the environmental impact of different oil crops like oil palm and coconut by quantifying the number of species that have been threatened by each.
  • The study and the media coverage that followed appeared to show that coconut oil is far more damaging to global biodiversity than palm oil, but this argument is not supported by the data: according to the IUCN, palm oil production has actually threatened five times more species than coconuts.
  • The Current Biology authors have since stated that “we want to be very careful not to say that coconut is actually a greater problem than palm oil.” Here, a coconut industry CEO explains how the brief study arrived at its conclusions, and what makes coconuts more sustainable.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

You may have recently come across an article titled “Coconut oil production threatens five times more species than palm oil—new findings” (or maybe you have come across a similar article here, here at Mongabay, or here). Some commentators have complained about the fact that the author, Erik Meijaard, receives funding from the palm oil industry, but we all approach issues with our own biases.

I happen to be a big fan of coconuts—I earn my livelihood from them and, more importantly, I have seen how critical this crop is to some of the world’s poorest farmers. I am also passionate about forest conservation, which was the focus of the first half of my professional life. Therefore, when I came across this recent article, the fundamental flaws in its analysis were too much for me to ignore. I’d like to share with you what I saw.

The first thing to know is that the well-respected International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), maintains a list of threatened species throughout the world, and reasons why each species was added to the list. Oil palm is mentioned as a factor that has threatened 321 species while coconuts are mentioned as a factor that has threatened 66 species. Contrary to the title of the above-mentioned article, according to the IUCN, palm oil production has actually threatened five times more species than coconuts!

Coconut delivery. Image courtesy of CocoAsenso.

It may come as a surprise to learn that Meijaard relies on this same IUCN data to make his claim about coconut oil. How he does this requires a bit of explanation. Meijaard’s claims are based on an academic paper recently published in Current Biology titled “Coconut oil, conservation and the conscientious consumer.” Meijaard was the lead author of this paper, which is a nine-paragraph “Correspondence” with 10 citations rather than a typical rigorous research article.

In the Current Biology article, Meijaard and his colleagues examine the environmental impact of different oil crops by taking the number of species that have been threatened by each crop (according to IUCN data) and dividing it by the quantity of oil annually produced by each crop. This yields 3.8 species per million tons of palm oil and 18.3 species per million tons of coconut oil.

The authors perform this equation for five other oil crops, present a nice map showing where different oil crops are grown, and devote the majority of the paper towards calling for a more nuanced approach to conservation that is “not impaired by shortsightedness and double standards” and the need for finding better ways to evaluate the positive and negative impacts of different crops.

It is worth noting that in their published paper, the authors erroneously reported 20.3 threatened species per million tons of coconut oil instead of 18.3 species. However, this isn’t even the beginning of their mistakes that paint a highly misleading picture of the environmental impact of coconut oil production.

Coconuts are grown in sustainable agroforestry systems in Papua New Guinea in combination with cacao and betel. Photo by Camilo Mejia Giraldo for Mongabay.

First of all, the authors assume that all coconuts are used for coconut oil and only coconut oil. In reality, only around two thirds of coconuts produced worldwide are processed into coconut oil. If the authors had accounted for this simple fact, their reported figure of 20.3 species would have instead been 12.2 species.

This still seems like a high number, but this is before we remember another important fact that the authors ignored when applying their indicator to coconut oil – for one ton of coconut oil production there are two to seven tons of valuable byproducts produced. This virtually always includes 0.5 tons of copra cake (high-protein animal feed) and 1.5 tons of shell (used for everything from fuel to water filtration). In many cases, marketed byproducts also include 3 tons of husk (highly sought after for horticulture and other uses) and 2 tons of coconut water. They don’t call it the “tree of life” for nothing!

From one ton of oil palm, you basically just get one ton of palm oil and some fuel for your palm oil factory.

The fact that Meijaard and his colleagues assume that coconuts are only used for coconut oil is arguably not even the biggest reason to dismiss their analysis of coconuts. Perhaps the greatest reason is something that the authors acknowledge when they write that the IUCN data, which is at the core of their analysis, “focuses on what has happened in the past, rather than the marginal impacts of additional production.”

Knowledge of past environmental damage may be interesting to know, however what consumers and policy makers really need to know is how species are threatened today and how they are expected to be threatened in the future. Unfortunately, the data presented by Meijaard and his colleagues provides little relevant information about present-day threats to biodiversity.

Coconut farmer. Image by Suhandri Lariwu / Pexels.

Focusing on past environmental damage rather than current environmental threat inherently paints a darker environmental picture for coconuts and a rosier one for palm oil. Coconut has been grown extensively for over a century and the majority of coconut plantations that exist today were established at least 50 years ago. It is no coincidence that the only coconut-related extinctions mentioned by Meijaard and his colleagues occurred in the 1940s. Industrial-scale oil palm production on the other hand is relatively new — the majority of its land area was established over the past 20 years.

Perhaps the most critical question in assessing the threat that a particular crop poses to biodiversity is the crop’s current rate of expansion and destruction of natural ecosystems. Meijaard and his colleagues completely ignore this in their analysis. This may be because coconut plantations are expanding at a snail’s pace. According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) the expansion in land area of coconut over the past three decades was 1.8 million hectares, or an area that you could drive around in about five hours.

Unlike coconut, oil palm is a rapidly expanding crop that is currently one of the largest drivers of tropical deforestation. Over the past three decades, 12.1 million hectares — an area of land half the size of the United Kingdom, most of which was primary tropical rainforest — was converted into oil palm plantations.

See related: New player starts clearing rainforest in world’s biggest oil palm project

Contrary to the claims of Meijaard and his colleagues, the reason why environmentalists focus their ire on palm oil rather than coconut oil is not due to “double standards” but rather due to an accurate assessment of the differing threats that these commodities currently pose to the health of our planet.

Meijaard and his colleague Douglas Shell have responded to most of what you have read above. You can read and interpret their responses yourself here, but my interpretation of their core of their response is, ‘we acknowledge that our data is far from perfect, but we nevertheless found it interesting and worth sharing. Furthermore, our article was not at all about vilifying coconut oil, it’s about calling for improved information about the impacts of different crops to enable consumers to make better choices.’

This sentiment is echoed in an earlier Mongabay article discussing the Current Biology article where Meijaard is quoted saying, “we want to be very careful not to say that coconut is actually a greater problem than palm oil.”

More about palm oil:

Given that the authors acknowledge that their data is not good enough to claim that coconut oil is better or worse for biodiversity than any other oil, it is confusing and perhaps troubling that Meijaard would represent the work of his scientific team to the general public by writing an article titled “Coconut oil production threatens five times more species than palm oil–new findings.”

The need for better information on the sustainability of all crops is something that most everyone can agree on. However, trying to achieve this by releasing an article that creates unnecessary public confusion regarding a crop that is the lifeblood for millions of smallholder farmers is clearly counterproductive.

Asa Feinstein is the founder and CEO of CocoAsenso, a social enterprise that purchases coconuts directly from farmers in the Philippines, and which is establishing a network of coconut processing centers in remote regions of the country.

An earlier version of this article appeared here at CocoAsenso’s website.