Coconut Oil Confusion Reveals the Perils of Ethical Purchasing

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Producing coconut oil could be more harmful for the environment than previously thought as it exacerbates already-high extinction rates of animals in unique, tropical areas.

According to a new report from the U.K.’s University of Exeter, production of coconut oil threatens around 20 animal species for every million tons made. That’s more than four times as many as for other oil-producing crops such as palms, olives and soybeans.

Increasing numbers of conscientious consumers -- alongside the rise in popularity of lifestyle choices such as veganism -- have shifted the spotlight onto the ecological impact of products such as vegetable oils. Production of palm oil is well-known to be environmentally damaging because of the quantity of land which needs to be cleared to make way for the crop. Consumers are less aware of the impact of farming coconuts, the report said.

Coconut Oil Confusion Reveals the Perils of Ethical Purchasing

“Many consumers in the West think of coconut products as both healthy and their production relatively harmless for the environment,” said lead author and conservation scientist Erik Meijaard, who declared a potential conflict of interest through paid work for oil palm company ANJ-Agri and his chairmanship of the IUCN Oil Palm Task Force. “As it turns out, we need to think again about the impacts of coconut.”

The findings highlight the difficulties for consumers looking to make environmentally conscientious spending choices. That has often meant turning to dairy-free substitutes, such as coconut milk, because of their perceived health benefits and environmentally friendly image. Yet, without objective guidance on the environmental impacts of different crops, their ability to make informed decisions is undermined, the report said.

“It remains challenging to identify and weigh which species and environments have been or will be threatened by production of which products, and in which contexts, but such measures are needed,” according to the report. “New measures can enable consumers to make better choices. While perfection may be unattainable, improvements over current practices are not.”

The palm oil industry is reckoning with its environmental impacts with the help of initiatives, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. No such body exists for coconut oil production. The study focused on the biodiversity impact of vegetable oils and did not address the impact on greenhouse gases, which could be quite different for each source.

Coconut is a popular product, mostly used for oil but also for copra, milk and water. Production of coconut oil affects such a high number of species because the crop is mostly grown on tropical islands with rich diversity and many unique animals. However, the authors emphasize the objective of the study is not to add coconut to the growing list of products that consumers should avoid, noting that olives and other crops also raise concerns.

“Consumers need to realize that all our agricultural commodities, and not just tropical crops, have negative environmental impacts,” said co-author Professor Douglas Sheil of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. “We need to provide consumers with sound information to guide their choices.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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