Coconut Oil Production More Destructive Than Palm Oil

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A recently published study has found that the production of coconut oil is more destructive to native species than palm oil production. 

The numbers come from a collaborative study published in Current Biology from the University of Kent and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife research. 

Key findings of their study include the fact that the production of coconut oil impacts 20 threatened species per million litres of oil produced, while palm oil production affects 3.8 species per million liters. 

Comparatively, soybean oil impacts 1.3 species per million litres produced. 

coconut oil environmental damage
Image from Erik Meijaard

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Erik Meijaard of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology and lead author of the study has said that “there’s a discrepancy between what people think because of their cultural biases and lack of understanding or knowledge, and what the reality tells us.” 

“If you’re missing part of the picture that, in this case, the fact that coconut is actually problematic for biodiversity… then no one is going to address that, and we don’t solve the problem,” he said. 

Meijaard, who works as the Director of Borneo Futures and has nearly three-decades of experience in tropical conservation has questioned the bias toward coconut oil, and the stigmas attached to palm oil. 

“Both of them are tropical plants that are occupying large areas that previously would have been covered in natural forest… why does one end up being evil and the other being wonderful?” 

While coconuts grow all over the world, the majority of coconut oil production is found in the Philippines and Indonesia. 

palm oil coconut environment
The majority of coconut oil production is found in the Philippines and Indonesia. 

While coconut plantations take up less space than palm plantations – 12.3 million hectares compared to 18.9 million hectares – they impact as many as 66 species on the IUCN’s Red List. 

The study says the extinction of two species of animal can be attributed to the production of coconut oil, with many more in danger. 

“We want to be very careful not to say that coconut is actually a greater problem than palm oil,” Meijaard continued to explain. “What we’re really trying to say, and trying to get the public to understand, is that all agricultural commodities have their own issues.” 

The study points out that the production of other oils, like olive, soy and rapeseed also have ecological downsides, too. A study published in Nature purports that machines used to process olives kill as many as 2.6 million birds each year. 

“The production of olive oil, however, rarely raises concerns among consumers and environmentalists,” Meijaard continued to explain. “There are various perceptions at play – the olive oil industry benefits from the belief that it represents a sustainable practice with an extensive heritage and mythology, claims of health benefits and being locally based. Conservation thus often appears to be impaired by shortsightedness and double standards, frequently driven by environmental campaign agendas,” he says. 

Douglas Sheil, co-author of the study and professor at the Norweigan University of Life Sciences has said that “we need to provide consumers with sound information to guide their choices.” 

“Consumers need to realise that all our agricultural commodities, and not just tropical crops, have negative environmental impacts,” Sheil said.  

In terms of the ideal crop for mass production, Meijaard says that “at the moment, we’re simply not there yet.” 

“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,” he concluded. 

coconut oil
Coconut oil is a common ingredient in health and skincare products, as well as food.

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