Coconut is back in the news but for worrisome reasons. Scientists and environmentalists around the world are voicing concerns about the impact of coconut production on endangered species, saying it is more damaging than palm oil. 

In results of a University of Exeter research study, scientists note that, “Production of coconut oil affects 20 threatened species (including plants and animals) per million tons of oil produced. This is higher than other oil-producing crops, such as palm (3.8 species per million tons), olive (4.1) and soybean (1.3).”  The primary reason for the high number of species is that coconut is mostly grown in the tropics, which have a rich species diversity. 

Conservationist Erik Meijaard, adjunct professor of conversation at the University of Kent, notes this concern is echoed by The International Union for Conservation of Nature. “Despite its benign reputation, coconut has a surprisingly large negative impact on tropical biodiversity,” he writes in an article published in an academic journal called The Conversation. “In fact, coconut cultivation has directly contributed to the extinction of some species. Oil palm so far hasn’t, as far as we know.” 

Likewise, he states that, “The Spanish olive harvest reportedly killed 2.6 million birds in 2019, as agricultural workers vacuumed up both olives and roosting birds at night.”

Scientific journalist Fermin Koop, writing for ZME Science, comments on how challenging it can be for consumers to make environmentally conscious purchase decisions. “Many turn to dairy-free substitutes, such as coconut milk, with a greener environmental image. But without real guidance on the environmental impact of crops, it’s quite difficult to make an informed decision.” 

Yet none of these experts are calling for a coconut boycott. Concludes Professor Maijaard, 

“Like the production of any commodity, the coconut can be grown in a manner that minimizes environmental impacts and maximizes the social benefits for local people, as well as the health of those that consume it.

“If people want to boycott palm oil due to its contribution to deforestation, perhaps they should also shun coffee, chocolate and, indeed, coconut. All food products must be sustainably grown and for that to happen, we must understand that food systems need systemic change, not a fixation on a few bad apples.”