It’s Time for the World to Start Caring About Coconuts

How the Coconut Craze is Affecting Farmers and 2 Things You Can Do To Help
Jul 10, 2017 1:00 PM ET

By Angie Crone, Coconut Manager, Fair Trade USA

Welcome to the age of the coconut, one of the world’s most popular “superfoods”. If you couldn’t already tell, coconut products are everywhere. And demand is still rising. Coconut water, the first to hit the market, was quickly followed by a boom in sugars, oils, flours, body care, detergents and even home cleaning products. (Most of us use coconut on a daily basis and don’t even know it!) Coconut water alone is projected to generate $4 billion in revenue between 2015 and 2019. Meanwhile, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported that the global demand for coconut is growing at a rate of more than 10% each year.

So coconut is booming, but where’s it all coming from? And an even bigger question- can the people growing it keep up with the craze?

Most of the world’s coconuts are grown in three countries: Indonesia, the Philippines and India. While Indonesia is the largest producer, the Philippines is actually the largest exporter of coconuts to the global market (at 59%). Currently around 95% of coconut trees are harvested by smallholder farmers. In the Philippines alone, there are 3.5 million smallholder coconut farmers, meaning “the livelihoods of one in every five Filipinos are directly or indirectly dependent on the coconut sector,” said Romulo Arancon, executive director of the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community. Unfortunately, many of these farmers are in trouble. Our growing love of coconut isn’t necessarily benefiting the communities they come from.

The Challenges:

These are some of the key issues in the coconut sector right now. And very few coconut lovers recognize how important it is to address them:

Demand is Outpacing Supply

Regional Asia Pacific production of coconut is only growing at a rate of about 1.3% per year (which is troubling with a 10% demand increase), largely due to declining productivity from aging trees. On average, a coconut tree’s lifespan is up to 100 years, but peak production happens between ages 10 and 30. As a tree ages, it produces less and less coconuts, leaving farmers to decide whether to remove the tree and replant or to continue relying on the dwindling yields. A major factor here is that it takes upwards of five years for a tree to start producing coconuts, which is a long time to wait to put food on the table.

Farmers are Deeply Impoverished

The National Anti-Poverty Commission found that despite the increased demand for coconut, around 60% of coconut farmers live below the poverty line. Farmers have little to no extra income to invest in resources for their farms, which results in shrinking crops and further declining incomes. The average annual income for a coconut-farming household is around $355 a year, which averages out to less than one dollar a day.

And so, the cycle continues. Low incomes, declining production, deeper poverty. The worst part? Younger generations are watching this cycle firsthand, and are looking for the exit. People just don’t want to grow up to be coconut farmers; it’s simply not a viable profession.

Climate Change

The Philippines are hit by an average of 20 typhoons per year. In 2013, Typhoon Yolanda damaged 33 million trees, impacting more than one million farmers across the country and causing $369 million in losses. Pests also pose a major threat to coconut yields and can impact trees virtually overnight- an issue that heightens with irregular and warming weather patterns.

So, What Do We Do?

1. Learn About the Issues and Raise Awareness

There is not one single solution for how to transform the coconut industry, but without a doubt, it has to start with awareness and a conversation. The coconut economy is vast, but the number of collaborative efforts to transition the world’s coconut supply into sustainable production can be counted on one hand. We see so many large-scale efforts to support industries like cocoa, coffee, seafood and other sectors, but not yet in coconut. Our favorite “tree of life” is being left behind.

It’s time to change that.

In addition to fostering cross-industry dialogue, Fair Trade USA is working to build sustainable livelihoods in coconut communities through certification. Since launching in 2014, Fair Trade USA’s coconut program has grown to include over 6,000 farmers, primarily in the Philippines. With the help of the program, farmers work together to address these critical challenges and to take the lead in building stronger businesses and communities. The Fair Trade coconut program is still small, but can play an important role in a much larger, industry-wide solution as it continues to expand over the coming years.

The two most important things to know about Fair Trade coconuts are: the Fair Trade Standards, which help protect farmers and the land they rely on, and the Community Development Fund, an additional amount of money farmers earn every time you purchase a coconut product with the Fair Trade Certified seal. Farmers decide democratically how best to use this money, to strengthen their farms, livelihoods, and communities.

In the Philippines, Fair Trade coconut farmers are voting to use this money to directly combat the largest threats to their wellbeing, including:

  • Tree replanting and nursery creation, to ensure old trees can be replaced
  • Disaster relief programs, to help farmers cope with and recover from climate change-related natural disasters
  • Crop diversification, so they have more resilient farms and other sources of income to support their families

One group of farmers in the Philippines also used Fair Trade Funds to create a school lunch program for malnourished children. “With the help of the feeding program, children are now motivated to go to school,” says Abby Cordero, a teacher at the school. “They learn proper personal hygiene and their school performance improved. Since the parents of these malnourished children are also involved they learn to cook nutritious and affordable meals for their families at home.”

For more examples of the impact of Fair Trade, watch this video made by coconut farmers in the Philippines.

2. Purchase Fair Trade

You have the power to make an impact every time you purchase a coconut product, just by looking for the Fair Trade Certified seal.  Alter Eco, Cocokind, Ecolips, Spectrum, Arrowhead Mills, Simple Truth and Naked Juice each carry lines of Fair Trade coconut products. You’ll find things to bake with, snack on, keep your skin smooth and even provide mood lighting (yes, there are Fair Trade coconut candles!). Most importantly, you can spread the word. Let people know about the unseen side of coconut.

As the demand for coconut grows it’s becoming more and more crucial for us lovers of coconut to pay closer attention, and to play an active role in creating a more sustainable industry that benefits everyone involved. Coconut has the potential to become the world's most sustainable agricultural products, but it will take all of us to make this happen. So, let’s get to work.

Elise Segars
Fair Trade USA