This isn’t an article about what kind of cooking oil is healthiest for you. This is an article urging you to make sure that if you buy coconut oil, it comes from a humane and sustainable source.
Environmentalists and animal rights activists have done a good job of shedding light on the heartbreaking deforestation wrought by Indonesia’s palm oil industry that has obliterated essential habitat for orangutans, proboscis monkeys, clouded leopards and sun bears, not to mention hundreds of bird species.1 Palm oil seems to be in everything and that it is understandable because oil palms, that depend on humid tropical growing conditions, “produce 5 to 8 times more oil per hectare” compared to other oil producing crops like soybeans, sunflowers, and rapeseed that require “5 to 8 times more land than oil palm trees to produce one tonne of oil.”2 It’s being used in everything from Ritz crackers to Oreos to Cadbury chocolate bars as manufacturers shifted away from trans-fats.3
If you have been trying to vote with your wallet and avoid buying products with palm oil, chances are you often choose products that use coconut oil instead for everything from vegan shampoos to vegan cheeses. Somehow, I had missed similar condemnations for the ethical lapses of many players in the coconut oil industry. That is, until I noticed a slug of articles with titles like these:
- “Did An Abused Monkey Pick Your Coconut?” HuffPost4
- “Coconut Oil Might Be Good For You. But It’s Not Good For The Environment.” Medium5
- “Why Coconut Oil May Be Worse Than Palm Oil For The Environment.” Independent6
Wow! I had no idea that many coconut growers in Southeast Asia use pig-tail macaques trained to pick anywhere from 300-1,000 ripe coconuts each day. The HuffPost article shared a quote from a monkey handler who described how the monkeys are obtained in this way, “Sometimes the monkeys are offspring of berok (already trained monkeys); sometimes they are caught [by poachers] on the forest with nets or traps. Often though, nursing mothers are shot and their babies are taken.”4
The monkey training facilities were described this way, “’The primitive, primate campus, a simple, open sided shed,’ contains, ‘individual, meter high stakes, driven into the dirt floor… Onto each perch is tethered a solitary monkey by collar and chain. There are a dozen such perches, each one just out of reach of its neighbor.’”4
The HuffPost article lists companies that state they only source from suppliers that do not use monkeys. The list includes companies like Dr. Bronner’s, Earth Circle Organics, Naked Coconuts, Nutiva, So Delicious, Silk and Spectrum Organics. The HuffPost author, Nathan Winograd, stresses, “It should be noted, however, that if they source their coconuts from Thailand, industry spokesmen there say it is ‘hard to believe’ that primates were not used. In Thailand, monkeys pick 99 percent of the coconuts harvested.”4
Danielle Vick, writing for Medium, has this take on the problems with coconut oil: first, “if being green and using local ingredients go hand in hand, then this one is a fail. Most of the coconuts we use come from Indonesia, the Philippines, and India.”5 Hardly a local choice. On top of that, coconuts are shipped to factories that dry the meat, then shipped to another factory that extracts the oil, and then shipped again to be packaged, before it is shipped again to our local stores5…
Vick suggests that consumers opt for organic coconut oil and that Fair Trade-certified is an even better choice that “allows farmers to receive money on top of the sales for the oil itself to be reinvested into local projects like education and business development.”5
The most recent of the articles mentioned above is a more in-depth analysis by Erik Meijaard, an adjunct professor of conservation at the University of Kent, writing for the Independent. He points out that “Per volume of oil produced, coconut production affects more species than any other oil crop, including oil palm. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), coconut threatens some 20.2 species per million metric tonnes of oil produced, followed by olive with 4.1 species, oil palm with 3.8 and soybean, 1.3.”6
Meijaard cites several species that have been wiped out by coconut cultivation that include “a bird called the Marianne white-eye (Zosterops semiflavus) of Marianne Island in the Seychelles, and the Solomon Islands’ Ontong Java flying fox (Pteropus howensis). Neither has been seen since 1945, but they were once found on islands that have been mostly converted to coconut plantations.”6
Meijaard urges that “rather than add coconut to the growing list of products to be avoided by conscientious consumers, we should understand that all crops and commodities have environmental consequences. The Spanish olive harvest reportedly killed 2.6 million birds in 2019, as agricultural workers vacuumed up both olives and roosting birds at night.”6
He goes on to conclude, “If people want to boycott palm oil due to its contribution to deforestation, perhaps they should also shun coffee, chocolate and, indeed, coconut. All food products must be sustainably grown and for that to happen, we must understand that food systems need systemic change, not a fixation on a few bad apples.”6
The bottom line: if you choose coconut oil-based products, do a little research into brand practices and look for those grown sustainably. Danielle Vick cautioned, “don’t be tempted to buy the cheapest option. Consumer choices really do make a difference.”5
1Lustgarten, Abrahm. Palm Oil Was Supposed to Help Save the Planet. Instead It Unleashed a Catastrophe. New York Times. 20 November 2018.
2Roda, Jean-Marc. The Geopolitics of Palm Oil and Deforestation. The Conversation. 1 July 2019.
3Pinkstone, Joe. Cadbury Bars and Oreos Are Among Products from TWELVE Companies Driving Orangutans To the ‘Brink of Extinction’ With The Use Of Palm Oil. Daily Mail.com. 13 November 2018.
4Winograd, Nathan J. Did an Abused Monkey Pick Your Coconut? HuffPost. 6 December 2017.
5Vick, Danielle. Coconut Oil Might Be Good For You. But It’s Not Good for the Environment. Medium. 19 February 2019.
6Meijaard, Erik. Why Coconut Oil May Be Worse Than Palm Oil For The Environment. Independent. 9 July 2020.
R.A. Kroft writes about her day-to-day journey in living a smaller, more sustainable life and other topics that interest her.
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