Effects of Coconut Oil Illustration

(Laura Grigorieff/Emerald)

In the past several years, Americans have gone crazy for coconut oil. In fact, the U.S. is the largest importer of the product. It’s been advertised as a product for everything, from makeup remover to hair moisturizer to cooking. It's also healthier than other oils and less environmentally problematic than the palm oil industry. But what are the environmental impacts of this increase in demand?

The Coconut Tree Growers

Coconuts trees are a species of palm tree that produces large fruits called coconuts. They can live for about 80 to 120 years, but they don’t start to produce coconuts until they are about four. Once they start, they make about 50 a year — it takes about a year for each coconut to mature enough to be cultivated. Coconut trees produce fruit year-round.

Coconut trees (like coffee plants) thrive in tropical climates and are most plentiful along the coast of southeast Asia. The main coconut exporting countries are Indonesia and the Philippines. Indonesia produces about 183 million tons of coconuts every year and the Philippines is close behind at about 154 million tons per year. To put that in perspective, each coconut weighs about 2.5 kilograms and there are about 907 kilograms in a ton. That’s roughly 363 coconuts per ton, which already would require over four coconut trees to produce in a year. Multiply that by 183 million, and that is a lot of coconut trees needed.

It’s common to see fields filled with one crop. This is known as monocropping, and on the surface, it makes economic sense to create a surplus of one demanded crop. But farming the same plant over and over again on the same soil plot decreases the nutritious value of the soil, which weakens the immune system of plants that grow on it. To make up for this, farmers have begun increasing their use of chemical fertilizers to maintain healthy coconut trees, which is a much cheaper option than revamping the agriculture industry sector. Yet, chemical fertilizers then leak into the watershed and pollute the freshwater in that area.

Monocropping also greatly reduces the amount of biodiversity in an area, which weakens the overall ecosystem. Yet increased demand of the products has forced farmers to choose pay over the environment.

The increase in demand of coconut products has mounted pressures on farmers to increase their yields and replace aging trees. Both require help from their governments to pay for new plants and provide services to educate and equip farmers properly. Indonesia has done a better job at helping to improve its agricultural industry than the Philippines, which has a history of ignoring its farmers. Many governments chose to subsidize chemical fertilizers too, rather than decreasing the monocrop culture, which further exacerbates local environmental issues.

Transporting Coconuts

Like with every product produced in the globalized economy, transportation is a major environmental factor. Because both Indonesia and the Philippines are island nations, exports are usually shipped by boat.

Extracting Oil from Coconuts

Coconut oil is also known as copra oil because the copra is the “meat” of the coconut. The coconut is cracked open and the copra inside dries. After, the copra is pressed, which squeezes the oil out. Each coconut provides about two ounces of oil. This method of production does not result in much environmental ware. The main issue lies in what happens to the rest of the coconut.

The rest of the coconut will often be burned, which releases a significant amount of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. A good alternative would be to use the rest of the coconut to produce an alternative to wood, which would provide an additional source of income for the exporting countries.

Containing Coconut Oil

To properly get into the environmental impact of packaging coconut oil, it would be important to analyze the production lifecycle of each form of packaging. To keep it brief, though, buying coconut oil in glass is much better than plastic because plastic doesn’t break down for thousands of years.

So, what is the environmental impact of the growing coconut oil craze? Coconut oil is a good alternative to palm oil because it has contributed significantly less to Amazon rainforest deforestation. It actually requires the least amount of energy to produce compared to other oils like olive oil. That being said, it might not be best to overindulge. Supply cannot keep up with much higher levels of demand, as coconut trees take a while to grow and an increase in demand could result in more ecosystems being cleared away to make room for new coconut trees. Yet, if the demand can’t keep up with the supply, prices of coconut products will simply go up.

People shouldn’t feel bad about using coconut oil, but they shouldn’t over-consume this product.

Science and Environmental Reporter

This is Becky’s first year writing for the Daily Emerald. She specializes in science and environmental reporting. She’s also written for Envision Magazine and the SOJC Communications Office. She’s created audio pieces for KWVA and KQED.

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