Saturday Magazine
Epithets on coconuts

By Dr. U. P. de S. Waidyanatha
Chairman, Coconut Research Board

The second of September was pronounced as the Coconut Day by the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community (the intergovernmental organisation for coconut) as from 1999, and is annually commemorated in many coconut growing countries. On this occasion, it should be opportune to reflect on several interesting epithets that this crop has earned during its long history.

‘The tree of life’


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Handicraft out of coconut wood from Vietnam

Coconut has been in existence for millions of years, widely spread both in the eastern and western hemispheres. It has a long history of over 2000 years in the coastal areas of India and Sri Lanka. Grown in about 11.6 million ha across some 86 countries, it forms an integral part of the livelihood of many communities, providing food, oil, wood, fuel, shelter, cash and many other benefits. The multiplicity of its uses has earned it the epithet ‘tree of life’ (‘kapruka’). Its ability to grow and produce in harsh environments - under conditions of drought, high salinity and in marginal soils may also have contributed to this epithet. This ‘tree of life’, according to a Sri Lankan proverb, has 99 uses, but ancient records apparently refer to some 360 uses out of which the Philippine Coconut Authority has listed some 300.

‘Lazy man’s crop’

Paradoxically the tree of life is also referred to by the epithet ‘lazy man’s crop’. It can, however, be argued that there is in fact no paradox but logic, for if it gives virtually everything, one would naturally be inclined to be lazy! This connotation also might have been a consequence of the fact that 96% of the world’s coconut production is from small holdings less than four hectares largely owned by poor farmers who lack the resources for good management and hence spend little time on the crop. In fact it has also been referred to as the ‘poor man’s crop’.

‘Artery-clogging tropical oil’

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Hunchback of Nortre Dame! From dried, discarded tender coconuts (Indonesia)

Coconut oil, yet remains the main coconut commodity in the world market, hating enjoyed a preeminent position as an oil crop for some 150 years, and until about three decades ago. The global depression beginning in 1929 resulted in cessation of investments in new coconut plantations. Then the second world war saw several large coconut producing countries under military occupation which lead to a severe shortage of coconut oil particularly in the US. This lead to intensified research efforts in annual oil crops to complement the supply of cotton seed and maize oils. The result was the birth of the soy oil industry as million of acres were planted to this new crop in the Mid West.

By the end of the war, soy oil had taken up much of the vegetable oil market share previously held by coconut oil. Then when coconut oil re-entered the US market after the war, at a relatively low price, the soya oil lobby sought market strategies to denigrate and destroy the coconut oil market in the US. Over the period 1950 to 1970 the soy lobby used selected results from animal feeding studies that were to its advantage in a massive anti-tropical oils campaign. Biased experimental results were translated into persuasive messages to the public and especially to the medical profession, and the epithet ‘artery clogging tropical oils’ was coined on coconut oil and palm oil. In fact me campaign was against all saturated fats based on the ‘lipid hypothesis’ that was propounded during this period in an attempt to explain the massive increase in the incidence of heart disease after the second world war. The hypothesis simply is that excessive consumption of saturated fats lead to elevated blood cholesterol increasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases. It was reported that the anti-saturated fat campaign in the US was so profound that Americans then feared saturated fats more than they feared witches! There was a consequent drastic change in the kind of fats that Americans ate. Butter consumption had dropped from 18 pounds to 10 lbs/person year, margarine largely filling the gap, and vegetable oil (mostly polyunsaturated - soya, corn, cotton seed oils) consumption had more than tripled from just under three lb/person/year to about 10 pounds. Coconut oil consumption had dropped drastically, but the incidence of heart disease had continue to increase almost exponentially from 1930 to 1970. So saturated fat could not have been the villain! And the lipid hypothesis is now being seriously challenged.

‘The sunset industry’

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Handicraft out of coconut husk and shell from Vietnam

The decreasing demand for coconut oil in the world vegetable oil market has made many to refer to it as the ‘sunset industry. Low (oil) productivity, supply vegaris and high cost of production, and quality assurance constraints are virtually insurmountable problems faced by the industry. Low productivity of coconut vis a vis oil palm has seriously afflicted the coconut oil industry. At the current world average of approximately 5000 coconuts/ha/year the equivalent oil yield should be only 0.6t/ha/yr as against average yields of palm oil exceeding 3t/ha/year. Malaysian palm oil yields under good management exceed 5t/ha/yr and potential (research) yields exceed 10t/ha/yr. Physiologically productivity, (carbon sequestration) of oil palm is well beyond that of coconut, and even with optimal genetic improvements coconut yields can never match oil palm yields.

Low productivity of coconut also implies high cost of production. At the prevailing price of about Rs. 7/- per nut, the break even price, making allowances for shell and poonac, but adding GST and NSL works out to about US$ 1000/MT, more than twice the current world price! The tariff and surcharge on imported vegetable oils, amounting to about 157% keep the industry afloat. But how long can such enormous price distortions be allowed? Despite all the dark clouds looming over the coconut oil industry there is also a silver lining. Coconut oil as also palm kernel oil are lauric oils used in the soap, detergent and food industries. Supply vagaries and consequent price volatilities of coconut oil have hitherto seriously restricted expansion of the lauric oil industry. Now with increased supply of palm kernel oil leading to stabilization of supplies, the lauric oil industry is expected to expand. Despite competition from ‘high-lauric’ cannola and palm kernel oil, therefore, there is the prospect for a reasonable market share for coconut oil which should keep the industry afloat. Moreover, growing concern of health hazards now from unsaturated fats (cannola, soya etc.), and increasing realisation that saturated fats after all are not villains as purported to be, the sun will not set on the coconut oil industry in the foreseeable future, but this is no reason for complacency.

Diverse Products

The future potential of coconut is not in the oil only but in the multiplicity of products that can be turned out from nearly all parts of the tree, too numerous to be discussed here. This potential unfortunately remains largely unrealised. What we seem to lack are ideas/imagination, resolve and vigorous and relentless marketing of the many attractive products that can be turned out some of which are illustrated in the picture.

‘The tree of accommodation’

It is unfortunate that nobody has yet coined an epithet for the very ‘accommodating’ attribute of the coconut palm, for it exploits only about 30% of the soil and 40% of the aerial space at optimal planting densities. It is this attribute of the palm that needs to be sustainably exploited to increase income from coconut farms. The potential for intercropping and animal production in coconut is vast and such ventures can give manifold more income than the coconut monocrop. However, only less than 20% of the total coconut extent in this country is used for any intercropping, and the size and intensity of operations are small, and no where near the optimal ‘carrying capacity’ of farms. Coconut should not be a monocrop but necessarily a component in a production system. ‘The lazy coconut farmers’ have been made more complacent by successive governments by adding out subsidies and various price support schemes leading to sinuous market distortions. This should stop. Whilst product diversification and value addition offer tremendous opportunities for the future, exploiting the inherent ability to accommodate other crop and animal production-in coconut plantations, appears to be the immediate answer for the current ills of the industry. Should we then not add another epithet to the tree of life’ in recognition of this virtuous attribute - the tree of accommodation’.