Coconuts are an extremely versatile and varied agricultural product that is found throughout the coastal regions of tropical latitudes. Though originally an Asian crop from the Indian Ocean region, today the coconut palm tree grows in the Americas and Africa as well as Asia. For many years, coconuts flew under the radar in many markets, particularly those of food and consumer goods. However, over the last decade, coconut-based goods, such as coconut water and oils, have become a business worth over US$2 billion worldwide. Nevertheless, this upcoming industry is not without challenges. Currently, coconut production is highly atomized in many regions of the world, meaning that most coconut farms are small and disconnected, which adds difficulties to the product’s processing and distribution lines. Similarly, processing plants need to be diversified in order to take full advantage of the coconut as a whole, marketing everything from the meat and the water to the husk fibers and the shell.
International Coconut Markets and Trends
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the world’s largest producers of coconuts during 2016 were Indonesia with 17.7 million metric tons annually, the Philippines totaling 13.8 million, India accounting for 11.1 million, and Brazil with 2.6 million metric tons. Nevertheless, other regions of the world are also key coconut producers, such as the Caribbean and Africa. Meanwhile, as the aggregate demand for coconuts rises and investment into this industry increases, an unexpected threat looms over the palm trees. A dangerous plant illness known as lethal yellowing disease can reduce production and even kill an entire coconut tree plantation in a matter of weeks. This disease originated in the Caribbean region, but the plant-hopper insect that spread the illness has propagated to other regions where coconut production takes place, particularly Africa.
The lethal yellowing disease affects coconut palm trees, causing both the leaves and the nuts to turn yellow and fall until the tree eventually withers. The impact of the disease has been particularly stark in the coconut farms and palm tree plantations throughout the Caribbean, including island nations as well as the state of Florida, and Africa. However, coconut growers can take some steps to minimize the chances of their crops becoming infected and being lost. Some specific measures include the implementation of agroforestry practices and the avoidance of monoculture as well as regular maintenance of the farm operation. Plantations and farming operations that are devoted exclusively to coconut palm tree cultivation throughout a large expanse of land are more likely to become infected. Meanwhile, operations that integrate a variety of crops and alternate between different types of plants maintain a more diverse ecosystem, which is less susceptible to the lethal yellowing disease. Similarly, if the disease were to infect palm trees on a farm that practices agroforestry, the chances of containing and eradicating the illness before it spreads are substantially higher.
Finally, major companies and scientific institutions within the coconut palm tree industry should lead a concerted effort to research this phenomenon in order to better deal with the challenges that it presents. Currently, only minimal investments have been devoted to addressing the issue of palm tree illnesses and significant progress can be achieved if a modest amount of capital is devoted to this cause.