Is coconut oil bad for the environment?

  • Date: June 10, 2022

Although palm oil has developed a bad rep when it comes to environmental impact, coconut oil isn’t perfect either! Coconut has wide-ranging environmental impacts, from the water and space required to grow coconuts in large quantities to the distances covered to get the products onto the retail shelves. Here we take a closer look at some of the environmental issues that the current on-trend oil brings.

Firstly, where does coconut oil come from?

Unsurprisingly, coconut oil comes from coconuts, more specifically the white fleshy part. There are two main types of coconut oil – the oil made from fresh coconut flesh and that made from dried coconut (copra).

So, is coconut oil bad for the environment?

Lots of energy can be needed to make coconut oil

Coconuts are harvested by hand. Avoiding the use of heavy machinery decreases the emissions in this stage of the process. However, extracting the oil can require a significant amount of energy – depending on the method used.

The most common type of coconut oil is that derived from the copra – the dried flesh of the coconut. Oil made from the copra will be cheaper. However, its production involves several stages that require intense heat. The deodorisation stage alone requires heat of 230C/446F! The energy needed to produce this significant heat adds to the carbon footprint of the process.

However, it should be noted, exact usage (and cleanliness of energy source) will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Some manufacturers use clean, solar energy whilst others opt for more old-fashioned, dirty methods.   

A lot of miles can be covered – from production to retail

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 use local produce – it has a range of benefits. 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 or close by, but here in the U.S. they have a lot further to travel to reach the shelves.

Even during the production process, the coconut may travel several miles between manufacturing facilities. During the production of refined coconut oil, often the copra is shipped large distances from where it was grown and dried to the manufacturing facility. In addition to potential contamination, this increases the carbon footprint of the whole process.

It should also be noted that there are also less obvious environmental impacts linked to food miles. Packaging is needed to ensure the products make the distance safely. Different packaging types bring their own carbon footprint. For example, whilst some will be plant-based such as biodegradable packing peanuts, others will be non-biodegradable plastics. 

Chemical fertilizers are often needed to grow coconuts

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 some significant environmental impacts. They can degrade soil and pollute local water ways, affecting soil health and killing aquatic species. If possible, you should choose the organic versions – in organic farming no synthetic chemicals are used.

However, it’s not all bad news when it comes to chemicals used during cultivation. Chemical pesticides are often used by farmers to fend off any insects or other pests. This comes with environmental impacts similar to that of fertilizers.  Although, practices vary from farm to farm, when coconuts are grown pesticides tend not to be needed.

Lots of water is needed in the process

Excessive water use is quite a big deal when it comes to environmental impact. It is an extremely precious resource for plants and animals. Any time we use a lot of water for an activity, it diverts it from eco-systems that could need it to thrive. 

Coconut trees need a fairly sizable amount of water to grow and harvest fruit. Although exact figures vary due to climatic conditions, it is estimated that around 15 to 30 gallons of water will be needed each day. When you add this to the water needed during manufacturing, the whole process is pretty thirsty!

The bottom line

Coconut oil, although often hailed as an eco-friendly alternative to palm oil, comes with its own issues. Large amounts of water and energy are often used in production. Pesticides are not 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. Coconut oil contributes to this but is not the main/only culprit.