At some point during the winter when I was a kid, my grandma would come home from the grocery store with fresh coconuts, all hairy and dark brown, like chocolate. We would stand outside in the cold of a New York January or February with a hammer and an ice pick and hack away until we split them open. We'd drink the coconut's water immediately, then sit on the floor over newspaper, picking out chunks of coconut meat, savoring its rich, tropical flavor, marveling that what we were eating started its life so very far away. When we couldn't eat any more, the dogs were happy to finish up the tasty leftovers.
There's a reason everyone in our home loved coconut. It's an incredibly nutritious food, which has led to a proliferation of products made from the giant seed over the past 20 years. I wash my face with coconut oil and put it in my smoothies for its heart- and immune-health benefits — and also because it's filling and flavorful. Coconut water is everywhere, touted as an electrolyte-packed, low-calorie beverage, and I'll admit I regularly drink the stuff. I've experimented baking with coconut flour, and my partner likes coconut milk for his smoothies. Starbucks started offering coconut as an alternative milk last year, exposing even more people to it.
But as with so many things, we may be loving coconut too much, as the BBC video below explains.
Our growing demand for coconuts has come at the same time stronger-than-usual hurricanes and droughts have destroyed or damaged coconut plantations. A lethal yellowing disease has killed other coconut palms, and in some areas, new trees haven't been planted fast enough. All of this has led to a 17 percent decrease in coconut plantations since 1994, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.
“It’s fair to say that at this pace, the Caribbean is running out of coconuts,” Compton Paul, coordinator of a regional coconut program at the Trinidad-based Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute, told Bloomberg News.
Adding to the problem is that it takes five years for a coconut tree to mature, meaning a long wait between planting and harvesting. And keep in mind this robust market for coconuts is new. It wasn't so long ago that tropical oils were thought to be unhealthy, and prices for coconuts dropped so low that for years, many went to waste.
While other countries, including the Philippines, India and Indonesia are picking up some of the slack, they are dealing with the yellowing disease and other diseases too. Part of the challenge for farmers is that there's not enough diversity in the coconuts that have been planted for human consumption, and with the popularity of coconuts being what it is, living seed banks are now being plundered to make all the coconut products we enjoy.