Palm oil has a bad reputation—but is coconut oil worse?
A new study argues coconut production poses a threat to biodiversity—including vertebrates, arthropods, mollusks, and plants—five times greater than palm oil. But the paper, published on 6 July in Current Biology, has triggered a ferocious debate on social media, where critics have accused the authors of promoting dubious statistics and an attempt to whitewash palm oil.
“Dear logging companies, should you ever need to justify your destructive and extractive (illegal) activities in the Amazon + SE Asia, or protection against nature conservation NGO’s [nongovernmental organizations] or legal action, please refer to the following paper in @CurrentBiology,” primatologist Adriano Lameira of the University of Warwick wrote in one of several sarcastic tweets about the paper.
Some 12.3 million hectares of land are used to cultivate coconut palms, compared with 18.9 million for oil palm. But coconut oil—used in a range of foods and cosmetic products, and popular for its supposed health benefits—enjoys a much better reputation, says lead author Erik Meijaard, who directs Borneo Futures, a consulting company based in Brunei, and chairs the Palm Oil Task Force of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Consumers associate it more with tropical islands and white sandy beaches than with the deforestation linked to planting oil palm groves.
That isn’t deserved, Meijaard and others write in their two-page “correspondence.” The authors tallied the number of species under threat from the cultivation of seven vegetable oil crops—according to IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species—and divided those by the global oil production for each crop. Coconut threatens 20.3 species for every 1 million tons of oil produced, they report. For olive oil and palm oil, those numbers are 4.1 and 3.8 species respectively; for sunflower oil, it’s 0.05.
According to the paper’s supplementary information, the number for coconut oil is actually 18.3, not 20.3; when Science asked about the discrepancy, co-author Jesse Abrams of the University of Exeter acknowledged that the calculation contains an error that the authors would ask the journal to correct.
But 18.3 is still a very high number. “The outcome of our study came as a surprise,” Meijaard says. The reason is that coconuts are primarily grown on tropical islands, “many of which possess remarkable numbers of species found nowhere else in the world,” he says. Indeed, some species have already become extinct because their habitat gave way to coconut palm, Meijaard points out, including the Marianne white-eye (Zosterops semiflavus), a bird in the Seychelles, and the Ontong Java flying fox (Pteropus howensis) of the Solomon Islands, which was last spotted in 1945. Today, coconut plantations threaten to the Balabac mousedeer (Tragulus nigricans), endemic to three small islands in the Philippines, and the Sangihe tarsier (Tarsius sangirensis), a small primate endemic to the Indonesian island of Sangihe, according to IUCN’s assessment.
The authors say perceptions of the environmental impacts of different oil crops “often appears to be impaired by shortsightedness and double standards.” There’s little attention for the millions of songbirds reportedly killed during olive oil harvests in Spain, for instance.
But others say the study paints a misleading picture. The vast majority of the species threatened by coconut palm live in small island nations that together produce only 8% of the global output of coconut oil, says Meine van Noordwijk, a senior research fellow at the World Agroforestry Center. Nearly 80% of coconut oil comes from Indonesia, the Philippines, and India. Excluding the small producers from the analysis would yield a very different number, Van Noordwijk says. He also notes that coconut palms are often planted together with other crops, so it’s hard to tease out the crop’s harm. Sheherazade, a field biologist who heads Tambora Muda Indonesia, an organization for Indonesian young conservationists, agrees. “We need a finer spatial analysis to discern which crop drives deforestation,” she says.
Sheherazade notes the picture is almost exactly the opposite judged by a different, more commonly used metric: Palm oil threatens 17 species per million hectares of cultivated crop, versus 5.3 for coconut oil. But Meijaard says quantifying species risk per million tons of oil is more relevant than per hectare, because consumer demand determines the business.
Other critics take issue with different aspects of the study: In absolute terms, palm oil threatens five times more species than coconut oil, according to IUCN (321 versus 66), and palm oil production is growing much faster. “At least in Kalimantan where gigantic palmoil plantations of 10,000 hectare are savagely carved out of virgin rainforest, coconut gardens tend to be mom & pop operations of 10-20 ha [hectares],” tweeted Biruté Galdikas, a primatologist at the Orangutan Foundation.
Some critics also pointed to a potential conflict of interest: Meijaard has received funding from an Indonesian palm oil company and from the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, a large multistakeholder group that seeks to make the industry more environmentally friendly.
Co-author Douglas Sheil, a professor of tropical conservation at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, says the authors didn’t seek to vilify coconuts but instead want to enable consumers to make better judgments about which vegetable oils to buy. “Consumers lack objective guidance on the environmental impacts of crop production, undermining their ability to make informed decisions,” Sheil says. Coconut is seen as an innocent crop because “global consumers rely heavily on information that they receive from the media, which is often supplied by those with vested interests.” As to the authors’ own interests, Meijaard has been transparent about his funding, and “It is a lazy defense to say that anyone who works with a company is somehow unreliable forever after,” Sheil says.
The authors agree the data in the paper aren’t perfect. “We wanted to raise awareness with this piece and use it as a call for more data and research,” says Abrams, who notes there is a lack of data on the environmental impact of many vegetable crops. “We know a lot about oil palm. Why is there such a bias?” Meijaard asks.
But Sheherazade says she worries the paper will be used to undermine environmental activism against unsustainable oil palm practice in Indonesia, especially now that new plantations are springing up in pristine forests in Papua. “Oil palm is still a huge threat to biodiversity,” she says. “The palm debate is very polarized, extra care is needed to avoid creating new myths,” Van Noordwijk adds.