Enjoy Coconuts while you still can – the world supply is in grave danger!

May 30,2017

In the 21st century, coconuts are almost everything to everyone. Coconuts are useful for their oil that is distinct from coconut butter. They are the primary raw material needed in the coconut flour market and are also used to extract sugar, milk, amino acids, and vinegar. No wonder the global coconut market is rapidly expanding. However, the long-term prospects for the coconut market are quite dire. For e.g., bacteria responsible for lethal yellowing is killing coconut trees in the Caribbean. The situation there has become so grim that a co-ordinator told Bloomberg that it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that the archipelago is exhausting its coconut supply. In Papua New Guinea and Ivory Coast, lethal yellowing is endangering plantations set up to protect diverse coconut variations for the next generation. While these nations aren’t the largest coconut producers – that title goes to Indonesia, the Philippines, and India respectively – this is surely an ominous sign for the world, particularly if different coconut varieties become extinct in the near future.

Coconut seeds in particular are very difficult to safeguard for generations. For other crops, researchers are able to keep gene banks, typically in seed vaults that hold many different varieties of the crop. If geneticists in the future want to breed wheat resistance to a lettuce suitable to grow in drought-like conditions or to a newly discovered disease, they simply need to turn to the seed vault. It is the best way to tackle monoculture and is sort of hedge against a rapidly changing planet. Unfortunately, seed vaults are useless to coconuts. Seed vaults are fine for temperate crops in case the small seed dries up completely according to Kenneth Olson of Washington University. Coconut seeds have a large proportion of water within them and the seed is almost the entire coconut itself. The sole way of storing coconut diversity is by way of a gene bank that is living – a farm that grows coconuts without any interruption. Five international coconut gene banks currently exist – in Papua New Guinea, Ivory Coast, India, Indonesia, and Brazil. The first two are vulnerable to lethal bacteria and need extra attention to preserve.

According to Roland Bourdeix, a coconut geneticist at CIRAD, coconut gene banks need immense space and that makes them susceptible to land grabs and very expensive to maintain. This is especially in developing nations where there is some sort of political instability. Preserving coconut diversity might not be the foremost concern in these countries. Even without these issues, there are certain biological facts that make it challenging to breed coconuts. Coconuts take roughly five years to fully mature, meaning that there is a five-year gap between every coconut generation. This is much slower than a corn that ripens in a few months at the most. Coconut trees can also be over 25 feet tall, making it dangerous to pollinate them by hand. To maintain the distinctness of diverse varieties, farmers have to climb the coconut trees to trim the male flowers while covering the female flowers with a bag until they can be fertilised with pollen from the desired variety.

In order to make coconut preservation easier, the International Coconut Genetic Resources Networkhas funded research on the isolation and freezing of coconut embryos. Almost all of the white fleshy coconut meat is part of the endosperm. The embryo is at the coconut base and is just slightly larger than a rice grain. Researchers have understood how to cryopreserve the coconut embryo, defrost it later, and grow it until the time is it large enough to plant in the soil. However, this technique is still unreliable. If 200 embryos are taken, only 10 or 20 coconuts are produced at the end. Therefore, additional work is required to perfect this technique. Funding is another challenge. The majority of farmers growing coconuts have a few hectares of farmland. Few can afford to invest in costly gene banks. In industries such as oil palm, large players typically subsidise this type of research. COGENT funding has become difficult to come by now on account of recent reorganisations. Maybe it is time for soft-drink manufacturers to step into the coconut water segment and fund the research to save this precious fruit. Otherwise, we just may lose it for all eternity.