March 3, 2024

The species of the world’s most popular nut is threatened

An investor who was interested in creating large fair-trade coconut plantations made a joke to me recently. Coconut water is the king these days.

The “it” drink for the rich and trendy, such as celebrities like Rihanna, Madonna, or Matthew McConaughey, is the rarest coconut water extracted from aromatic varieties and can even be an income.

Luxury brands are selling coconut water at up to US$7 per 33 cl. This is about the same as basic champagne.

The market is booming.

Even President Barack Obama loves coconuts. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Coconuts are a growing market. Coconut water has a current annual turnover of US$2 Billion. In the next five years, it is expected to reach US$4 Billion.

In 2007, a 25 percent stake in Vitacoco – the world’s largest coconut water brand – was sold to Verlinvest for US$ 7 million. Seven years later, a further 25% stake was sold to Red Bull China at a price of about US$166,000,000.

Other major players in the coconut water business include Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. However, more than 200 brands now market coconut water.

An essential crop

There’s more to the story. Coconuts are one of 35 crops that appear in Annexe 1 and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and are considered vital to global food safety. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that global production was 61.5 million tonnes in 2014.

Coconut palms are cultivated in 94 countries by more than 11 million farmers. Most of them are smallholders. All parts of the coconut palm are used.

Copra, the dried inner meat from the nut that is used to make oil, and the husk are the main products. The husk provides fibre, which is vital for the body. As we have seen, the demand for virgin coconut oil and tender coconut water has also increased in recent years.

Braiding ropes from the husks of the niu magimagi varieties on Taveuni Island in Fiji, 2012. Cogent/Roland Bourdeix. Author provided

Whole mature nuts are sold to factories which produce desiccated and cream coconut. At least half the coconuts are consumed locally.

Genetic Diversity

Over the millennia, humans have selected and maintained a variety of coconuts, which are used for countless purposes.

Diversity of coconut fruit in ex Situ genebanks. Roland Bourdeix

The fruits have a wide range of sizes, colours and shapes. The extent of this biodiversity is not well known at the global scale. The enormous amount of work that has been put into coconut breeding over the millennia by farmers, as well as by scientists in the 20th century, is still undervalued.

Most people, and especially Westerners, do not recognize the rarest coconuts, such as the Tetiaroa atoll or the India.

Coconut conservation

Scientists call it “germplasm”, but millions of small farmers are preserving the genetic diversity in coconut populations and types.

A Samoan teenager holds the niu coconut type. Roland Bourdeix

There have been a number of initiatives launched to support and recognise the role of these farmers and to sustain them through approaches to landscape management. For example, the Polymotu Concept (Poly means many, and Motu is an island in Polynesian).

The polymotu concept capitalizes on the geographic or reproductive isolation for the conservation of and reproduction of different species of plants, tree, and animal.

Two small islands in Samoa were recently replanted by a Pacific Community-led project, funded by the Global Crop Diversity Trust. This variety produces the largest coconuts in the world. They can reach more than 40cm in length.

Unfortunately, the coconut is in danger. The existence of lethal diseases that are rapidly spreading is one of the biggest challenges to coconut cultivation. These diseases have killed millions of palms. These pandemics have been dubbed fatal Yellowing Diseases.

Diseases are ravaging countries in Africa, Asia, North America, Mexico, the Caribbean and Florida.

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