Coconut confusion reveals consumer conundrum

July 06, 2020

Coconut oil production may be more damaging to the environment than palm oil, researchers say.

The issue of tropical forests being cut down for palm oil production is widely known, but the new study says coconut oil threatens more species per litre produced than palm or other vegetable oils.

The researchers use this example to highlight the difficulties of "conscientious consumption".

They say consumers lack objective guidance on the environmental impacts of crop production, undermining their ability to make informed decisions.

"The outcome of our study came as a surprise," said lead author Erik Meijaard, of Borneo Futures in Brunei Darussalam.

"Many consumers in the West think of coconut products as both healthy and their production relatively harmless for the environment.

"As it turns out, we need to think again about the impacts of coconut."

Co-author Dr Jesse F. Abrams, of the Global Systems Institute and the Institute for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence, both at the University of Exeter, added: "Consumers, especially those striving to be more responsible in their consumption, rely heavily on information that they receive from the media, which is often supplied by those with vested interests.

"When making decisions about what we buy, we need to be aware of our cultural biases and examine the problem from a lens that is not only based on Western perspectives to avoid dangerous double standards."

According to the study, production of coconut oil affects 20 threatened species (including plants and animals) per million litres of oil produced. This is higher than other oil-producing crops, such as palm (3.8 species per million litres), olive (4.1) and soybean (1.3).

The study shows that the main reason for the high number of species affected by coconut is that the crop is mostly grown on tropical islands with rich diversity and many unique species.

Impact on threatened species is usually measured by the number of species affected per square hectare of land used - and by this measure palm's impact is worse than coconut.

Coconut cultivation is thought to have contributed to the extinction of a number of island species, including the Marianne white-eye in the Seychelles and the Solomon Islands' Ontong Java flying fox.

Species not yet extinct but threatened by coconut production include the Balabac mouse-deer, which lives on three Philippine islands, and the Sangihe tarsier, a primate living on the Indonesian island of Sangihe.

The authors, however, emphasise that the objective of the study is not to add coconut to the growing list of products that consumers should avoid.

Indeed, they note that olives and other crops raise also raise concerns.

Co-author Professor Douglas Sheil, of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, said: "Consumers need to realise that all our agricultural commodities, and not just tropical crops, have negative environmental impacts.

"We need to provide consumers with sound information to guide their choices."

The researchers argue for new, transparent information to help consumers.

"Informed consumer choices require measures and standards that are equally applicable to producers in Borneo, Belgium and Barbados," they write.

"While perfection may be unattainable, improvements over current practices are not."
-end-
The article, published in Current Biology, is entitled: "Coconut oil, conservation and the conscientious consumer."

Erik Meijaard declares a potential conflict of interest through paid work for ANJ-Agri, an oil palm company, and his chairmanship of the IUCN Oil Palm Task Force.

University of Exeter

Related Science Articles from Brightsurf:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.

Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.

Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.

World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.

PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.

Read More: Science News and Science Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.