Is coconut milk bad for the environment?

  • Date: May 13, 2022

Veganism is gaining popularity year-on-year for both ethical and environmental reasons. With this, the plant-based milk substitute market has grown substantially – worldwide revenue is expected to reach a whopping $37 billion by 2026. The nutritional qualities of the different plant-based milks have been keenly debated elsewhere, but in terms of its impact on the planet – is coconut milk bad for the environment?

Firstly, what is coconut milk made from?

Coconut milk is produced when the white coconut flesh is grated and mixed with water. Water, generally, makes up nearly half of the coconut milk. It is available in different consistencies, and this is easily altered depending on your needs. It should also be noted that this is not the same as coconut water – this is the thin liquid that can be found inside immature coconuts.

As with other plant-based milk alternatives, shop bought brands are often fortified – extra vitamins and minerals are added. Although we won’t consider this here, but these extra ingredients will bring their own carbon footprint and environmental impacts as well.

So, is coconut milk bad for the environment?

High number of food miles (depending on your location)

Coconuts are primarily grown in Asia. Coconuts can, technically, be grown in any tropical area. However, over 70% are grown in Indonesia, the Philippines and India. Ideally, we should be eating and drinking local produce – it has a range of benefits. In terms of the environment, imported food can sometimes travel thousands of miles to get to you. These ‘food miles’ result in a large carbon footprint – primarily due to emissions caused by transport. Coconut products may be local to those living in Asia, but here in the U.S. they have a lot further to travel.

Compared to other milks, less water is needed!

The water footprint refers to how much fresh water is used in its production of an item. This is important because any fresh water used may be being diverted from ecosystems which need it to thrive. Coconut milk fares well compared with other milks when it comes to water footprint. Unfortunately, less research has been carried out to get a definitive figure of water required per glass of coconut milk. However, experts agree that its water footprint is lower than other plant-based milk alternatives such as soy and rice milk.  

Making coconut milk is energy intensive

Being harvested by hand gives coconuts an advantage when it comes to environmental impact. It avoids the use of heavy machinery that may cause significant emissions. However, making coconut milk is fairly energy intensive – especially on a commercial scale. The process requires a lot of machinery and hot water, making it energy intensive. However, exact energy requirements will vary from factory to factory with some using more eco-friendly practices than others.

Chemical fertilizers often needed – but, thankfully, no pesticides

Chemical pesticides are often used by farmers to fend off any insects or other pests. This comes with significant environmental impacts. They can degrade soil and pollute local water ways, affecting soil health and killing aquatic species. Although, practices vary from farm to farm, when coconuts are grown pesticides tend not to be needed.

Due to the increased demand for coconuts, many farmers have adopted the ‘monocropping’ method. Instead of rotating the crops, the same crop is grown on the land continuously. This can have a significant impact on the nutrient content of the soil. This is where fertilizers come in – they are added by the farmer to provide a more favorable environment for the crop to grow. Fertilizers have similar impacts on the environment as chemical pesticides. So,  where you can – opt for organic versions of coconut milk.   

The bottom line

No plant-based milk is perfect – they all come with their positives and negatives in terms of environmental impact. And of course, the taste and nutritional benefits are important factors to consider. Coconut milk fares well when it comes to environmental impact. Pesticides are not, generally, needed and the carbon footprint on the farm is limited with a lot of work completed by hand.  However, the rise in popularity of the humble coconut for many products has led to over-farmed areas. Of course, not all the fault of coconut milk – but it is a contributing factor, nonetheless.