The popularity of coconut oil soared when apparent health benefits were identified and celebrities began hailing it as a natural solution to moisturizers and as a healthy ingredient. Consumer demand increased the need for more coconut production, but has this harmed the environment?
Many coconut farmers are paid poor wages while companies capitalize on profits down the line to sell to overseas consumers. There aren’t many farms that use sustainable farming practices because the cost is too much compared to chemical solutions like fertilizer and pesticides.
Is coconut oil eco-friendly?
According to Rainforest Alliance, 75% of coconut oil production globally comes from the Philippines, Indonesia, and India.
Many of the coconut farms are in remote places with poor soil fertility with unsustainable farming practices. Thanks to the volatile price of dried coconut meat (copra), many farmers are paid small amounts for their work, and the low income of farms can result in child labor.
It’s no wonder that deforestation is linked to coconut production.
The amount of deforestation caused directly by coconut oil isn’t known, as figures either haven’t been checked or released.
A study into coconut oil, conservation and the conscientious consumer points out that the discussion on deforestation and biodiversity impacts of cultivating coconuts aren’t discussed as much as palm oil. Coconut cultivation is considered the main driver of deforestation in multiple coconut-growing countries.
When coconut trees age they become less productive, so more trees need to be planted. This can also result in reducing soil fertility, which takes longer to become fertile again, causing farmers to use chemical fertilizers instead.
Because there’s so much money to be made off of the coconut oil health trend, governments have considered subsidizing chemical fertilizer for farmers which means they’ll choose the cheap, chemical solution over environmentally friendly practices.
When coconuts are grown for local consumption their impact on the environment is greatly lessened thanks to the minimal transportation needed to take them from farms to locals.
Shortly after the ‘coconut craze’ hit, TIME reported in 2012 that “coconut-producing countries from Sri Lanka to Brazil [were] scrambling to supply foreign firms”.
One of the biggest concerns at the time was that farmers wouldn’t get “their fair share of the profit”. Fairtrade companies were the only people who could tackle this, as the vast majority of buyers would keep the same low prices despite adding profit down the line when selling to consumers.
How cultivators of coconut trees deal with pesticides is also an area of concern.
The false coconut scale (Aspidiotus rigidus) is a coconut pest in Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos preyed upon by wasps, beetles, earwigs, and lacewings. To counter the devastation of scale pests, scientists attempted to introduce these threats, though many others have determined that the use of pesticides and insecticides should be used.
“Fire trucks full of detergents and with power boom sprayers” have been used “along roads during the dry season”, reported Monthly Agriculture in 2014.
When local suppliers and investors claimed that organic and/or botanical pesticides could be as effective, their efficacy, safety for humans and the environment, and cost-effectiveness were questioned as research has not determined how useful they are.
While this research should be conducted, it’s worth noting that the article pushes for pesticide use based on how efficiently they deal with the pests, rather than their effect on the environment.
The article goes on to consider neonicotinoids, the most common form of agricultural pesticide, which is noted in the article that they are toxic to “non-target economic insects like honeybees and silkworms”. The importance of the honeybees in pollinating fruit, vegetables, and other crops is noted but because they don’t pollinate coconut trees the risk is not considered “serious for the coconut industry”.
While it’s good that Monthly Agriculture accepts this risk and notes that the tradeoff “needs to be resolved”, imagine how coconut farmers may look at this.
If these pests are threatening their livelihood, it’s unlikely that they’d wait for a better alternative to the neonicotinoids. In places where pesticide usage is largely normalized and not as well-regulated as the Philippine government is said to be, honeybees, silkworms, and more could be drastically exterminated.
Does coconut oil have health benefits?
Almost all claims of health benefits from coconut oil are unsubstantiated and have insufficient evidence. And when there are genuine health claims, studies don’t tend to use commercial coconut oil but instead a special formula.
This special formula uses 100% medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which have a shorter chemical structure than other fats and can be quickly absorbed and used by the body. This is why you may have heard that coconut oil prevents fat storage. Commercial coconut oil contains lauric acid which is absorbed more slowly.
Other coconut benefits aren’t necessarily about the oil either.
Claims that people who eat coconut as part of their native diet have been found to have low rates of cardiovascular disease but they don’t eat processed coconut oil, instead, the whole coconut is used and other native foods will contribute to their health benefits.
It is true that coconut oil is an “effective moisturizer” for skin and hair. It works by sealing moisture in the skin, but it shouldn’t be used alone.
Using coconut oil on your hands, knees, and arms after a bath should be fine but it’s not advised to use it on your face, chest, or back. This is because it clogs pores, which can cause acne and other breakouts. Plugging the follicles by using too much coconut oil can result in infection and inflammation of hair follicles.
Are coconut oil and coconut butter the same?
Coconut oil is oil that has been extracted from the coconut, while coconut butter is made from coconut flesh and is ground into a paste. Coconut butter retains the fat, fiber, and nutrients from coconut, while the oil does not. They’re both, however, derived from the same unsustainable practices.
Is coconut oil worse for the environment than palm oil?
Nowadays, most people know that palm oil is unsustainable and bad for the environment. But until 2020 it was considered one of the worst threats to biodiversity.
Then a study on vegetable oils found that coconut oil, previously overlooked, had a massive impact on biodiversity due largely to deforestation. As the so-called ‘coconut craze’ mounted with many hailing it for its health benefits, a push for expansion in coconut cultivation resulted in pushes for more deforestation.
The study determined that coconut oil cultivation threatens 18.33 species per million tons of oil produced, compared to palm oil that threatens 3.79 species per million tons of oil.
Should you still buy coconut oil?
You can still buy coconut oil if you prioritize buying from organic, fairtrade suppliers with certifications. This helps ensure farmers are paid a good wage and environmental factors are checked by the company.
Local alternatives will benefit you and the environment more. Instead of using coconut oil in cooking, try butter or olive oil. Vegan moisturizers are better for your skin and your hair than coconut oil as well.