Coconut oil more damaging to environment than palm oil, says new study
09 Jul 2020 --- The issue of deforestation for palm oil production is widely known. Still, a new study from the University of Exeter, UK, says coconut oil threatens more species per liter produced than palm or other vegetable oils. The researchers use this example to highlight the difficulties of “conscientious consumption.” However, the authors emphasize 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 also raise concerns.
According to the study, deforestation related to coconut oil production affects 20 threatened plant and animal species per million liters produced. This is higher than other oil-producing crops, such as palm (3.8 species per million liters), 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.
The researchers flag that 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,” says 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 Abrams of the Global Systems Institute and the Institute for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence, both at the University of Exeter, adds: “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.”
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 several island species, including the Marianne white-eye bird in 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.
“Consumers need to realize 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,” notes co-author Professor Douglas Sheil of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.
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. While perfection may be unattainable, improvements over current practices are not,” they warn.
Edited by Elizabeth Green
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