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Will the Future Have Coconuts?

Liz Clift

Coconut water. Coconut milk. Coconut cream. Coconut butter. Coconut oil. Fresh coconut meat. Dried, unsweetened coconut. Dried, sweetened coconut. Coconut flour. Coconut sugar. Coconut aminos. Coconut vinegar.

That’s a lot of coconut (and here’s a recipe that uses five different forms of coconut).

And that’s not even including the uses for the leaves, shells, and fibers associated with coconut—and we know from watching Tom Hanks in  Cast Away that coconuts are pretty useful.

But the coconut is in danger.

Bacteria that cause a lethal yellowing are wiping out coconut trees in the Caribbean, Cote d’Ivoire, and Papua New Guinea (the latter two, of which, are living seed banks for the coconut). The proposed name for the version in Florida and the Caribbean is Candidatus phytoplasma palmae – and it affects not only coconut palms, but other palms as well, including the date palm. A variety of subgroups of phytoplasmas exist, and scientists are still debating appropriate nomenclature.

Although it’s called lethal yellowing, yellowing of the foliage isn’t the first sign in mature plants. Instead, for those palms that produce fruit, the earliest symptom is a premature drop of most, or all, of the fruit, and in coconuts, one end usually develops a brown to black appearance.

This is not a new problem. The earliest known reporting is 1834 in the Cayman Islands, with similar reports in Nigeria and the Dominican Republic before 1920.

But, I’m getting into the weeds.

The takeaway is this: the coconut is the seed and they don’t store in seedbanks easily. So, we can’t just save seeds until scientists figure this out. Instead, we have to use living seedbanks—which means coconut plantations specifically dedicated to growing coconuts for posterity. Because coconut trees can grow so tall, ensuring genetic purity can be difficult (it’s a risky task to climb a coconut palm and pollinate it, much less to bag female flowers so you can ensure they are only pollinated by the appropriate male flowers).

And of the five international living seedbanks—in Brazil, Indonesia, India, Cote d’Ivoire, and Papua New Guinea—as I mentioned above, the last two are threatened by the bacteria. Additionally, all are in places where land grabs may threaten the plantations.

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution for what we can do about this.

The International Coconut Genetics Resources Network has funded research that has focused on isolating and freezing coconut embryos (fun fact: most of the coconut’s meat and milk is endosperm, which is what allows the embryo to develop!). While scientists have figured out how to successfully freeze embryos, thaw them, and then grow them in a controlled environment until they are large enough to plant in the soil, the success rate is only 5-10%. Unfortunately, additional funding for this type of research is difficult to come by. Most coconut growers are small farmers who only maintain a few acres. They don’t have the money to help invest in coconut research or gene banks. In other industries, big companies usually foot the bill for this type of research—a good practice, if they want to be able to continue to market a resource.

This hasn’t happened yet for coconuts.

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