Coconut oil has been in the spotlight for a while now as a superstar for personal care and healthier eating. It might seem like a miracle product, but a new study is highlighting the negative impacts of coconut oil that lurk in the shadows.
For the discerning consumer, it can be difficult to gather information about how products you purchase are made. But the truth is all consumable products have an impact on the planet, including coconut oil, a trendy health food and personal care product.
A team of researchers wanted to provide more information regarding the harvest of coconuts to consumers, but even they were surprised by the results of their study.
Lead author Erik Meijaard has worked in tropical conservation for nearly three decades, so he’s familiar with the frequent publication of information about palm oil and the lack of information around other similar plants. “Both of them are tropical plants that are occupying large areas that previously would have been covered in natural forest,” he said. “Why does one end up being evil and the other one being wonderful?”
The cultivation of coconut oil has been detrimental to ecosystems and is even expected to be responsible for the extinction of some animals, including the Marianne white eye, a tiny bird, and the feared-to-be-extinct Ontong Java flying fox, found only on the Solomon Islands. Other species currently threatened by coconut production are the endangered Sangihe tarsier, a small primate native to the Sangihe island of Indonesia, and the Balabac mouse-deer, which is only found on three islands in the Philippines.
According to the study, now in several publications, the production of coconut oil is a danger to 20 threatened species per million liters of oil produced, the standard measurement used in establishing the level of destruction caused by production. Comparatively, palm oil measures in at 3.8 species per million liters, and soybean oil impacts 1.3 species per million liters.
Another interesting tidbit from the study shows that coconut farms actually cover significantly less land space than other oil crops. For example, compared to the estimated 30.4 million acres for coconut palms, oil palms cover 46.7 million acres. The overall impact is higher, however, based on the IUCN’s Red List. The study reports that coconut plantations affect 66 species on the list, including 29 vertebrates, seven arthropods, two mollusks and 28 plants.
Although this revelation on coconut oil might be shocking, it’s intended to be informative for consumers. “We want to be very careful not to say that coconut is actually a greater problem than palm oil,” Meijaard said.
The study goes on to report that coconut isn’t the only culprit, and we need to maintain a wider lens when it comes to oil production. For example, the machines that harvest olive oil are blamed for the death of over 2.5 million birds each year. The researchers felt it was important to dig into the effects of oil production in products typically seen as healthy and low-impact environmentally, because these types of oils seem to benefit from a pass by the critical eye of the media and environmentalists. “What we’re really trying to say, and trying to get the public to understand, is that all agricultural commodities have their own issues,” Meijaard explained.
Co-author Jesse F. Abrams added, “When making decisions about what we buy, we need to be aware of our cultural biases and examine the problem from a lens that is not only based on Western perspectives to avoid dangerous double standards.”
Overall, the goal of the study wasn’t to target coconut oil production but to bring awareness to the need for more information about all consumer purchasing decisions. “At the moment, we’re simply not there yet,” Meijaard said. “We can pick any crop, and there are huge holes in our understanding and knowledge about their impact, so it’s a call from us for scientists, politicians, and the public to demand better information about commodities.”
Douglas Sheil, co-author of the study, added, “Consumers need to realize that all our agricultural commodities, and not just tropical crops, have negative environmental impacts. We need to provide consumers with sound information to guide their choices.”