The World’s Coconuts Are in Danger

… and it won’t be easy to save them.

A worker walks across a wire to harvest coconut sap. (Reuters / Anuruddha Lokuhapuarachchi)

In this day and age, coconuts seem to be, somehow, everything at once. You can buy oil from coconuts—not to be confused with butter from coconuts—and flour and sugar and milk and aminos and vinegar from coconuts. The coconut market is booming.

But the long-term outlook for coconuts? Not as good. In the Caribbean, bacteria that cause lethal yellowing are wiping out coconut trees—a situation so bad that a regional coordinator told Bloomberg, “It’s fair to say that at this pace, the Caribbean is running out of coconuts.” In Cote d’Ivoire and Papua New Guinea, lethal yellowing or a similar disease is threatening plantations specifically set up to safeguard coconut varieties for future generations. These aren’t the biggest coconut producing countries—that would be Indonesia, the Philippines, and India—but they are ominous signs for the rest of the world, especially if coconut diversity is not saved.

And coconut seeds are uniquely difficult to save for posterity. For most other crops, scientists maintain gene banks, usually in seed vaults comprising hundreds of different varieties. If future crop geneticists need to breed wheat resistance to an emerging disease or lettuce optimized to grow in drought, they can draw on the genetic diversity saved in these seeds. It’s a way to combat monoculture and an insurance against a changing world.

Seed vaults, though, are no use to the coconut. “It works fine for all of the temperate crops where the little seed dries down,” says Kenneth Olsen, a professor of plant biology at Washington University. “Coconut has got so much water in it.” (Coconuts seeds are literally the whole coconut.) The only way to bank coconut diversity is a living gene bank—in other worlds, a plantation where coconuts are grown continuously. There are five international coconut gene banks, in Brazil, Indonesia, India, Cote d'Ivoire, and Papua New Guinea. And the last two are threatened by lethal bacteria.

“Coconut gene banks need a lot of space,” says Roland Bourdeix, a coconut geneticist who works for CIRAD, a French agricultural research center focused in developing countries. That makes the gene banks expensive to maintain and also vulnerable to land grabs, especially as coconut gene banks are often in developing countries where the political situation might be unstable. Bourdeix recalls one gene bank recently demolished to make way for horse racing, per the wishes of local mayor, and another put under the control of the ministry of police. Saving coconut diversity is not, you know, always the most pressing concern.

Even without all these challenges, some basic facts of biology make it difficult to grow and breed coconuts. For one, coconuts take about five years to mature, which means at least five years between each generation. That just slows things down compared to a crop like corn that matures in just a few months. And second, coconut trees can grow over 25 feet tall, making hand pollination very dangerous. To keep different varieties distinct, farmers have to climb up to trim all the male flowers and then keep a bag over the female flowers (a coconut condom, if you will) until they’re ready to fertilize with pollen from the right variety.

To make coconuts easier to preserve, International Coconut Genetic Resources Network or COGENT, has funded work on isolating and freezing coconut embryos. Most of a coconut’s white fleshy meat is endosperm, or food for the developing embryo. The actual embryo is at the base of the coconut, and alone, it is just bigger than a grain of rice. Scientists have figured out how to cryopreserve this embryo, thaw it at a later time, and grow it in medium until it is big enough to pot in soil. But the protocol is so far unreliable. “If you take 200 embryos, at the end you have 10 or 20 coconuts only,” says Bourdeix. “We still have work to do on this method.”

Funding is also hard to come by. Most coconut growers are small farmers, taking care of only a few hectares at a time, so they don’t have the money to invest gene banks. In other industries like oil palm, big companies usually foot the bill for this kind of research. And funding for COGENT, which is affiliated with the network of research centers through Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, has gotten tight due to some recent reorganization higher up. “It’s been going for 40 years and now COGENT is in jeopardy,” says Vincent Johnson, a science editor with CGIAR. With coconuts going mass market these days, he says, maybe one of the big companies selling coconut water—Vita Coco? Pepsi?—might want to jump in. Now would be a good time.