Southeast Asia Might Not Have Enough Coconuts for Us

Americans are nuts for coco everything, but aging trees in the South Pacific are producing less and less.

Coconut tree palms in Vietnam, Southeast Asia. (Lasse Kristensen/Getty)

Nov 7, 2013· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

It’s in your granola at breakfast, the curry you eat at lunch, the box of liquid you drink after lunch, and you may fry up your dinner in it too. Coconut, in all of its many guises, is the food these days, and the countries in Southeast Asia that produce the majority of the world’s coconut-based products are taking note.

A full 90 percent of the coconut harvest comes from the Asia-Pacific region, with 95 percent of that production coming from smallholder farms. Coconut water is unbelievably hot in the U.S. right now, with sales, which have doubled since 2005, approaching $1 billion. That should present a phenomenal economic opportunity for families that raise coconut throughout the South Pacific, right?

Well, not exactly. See, coconut palms can live for more than a century, but as the years go by, output wanes. According to a release from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the region’s plantings, many of which date to the post–World War II era, are beginning to lag.

“Asia and the Pacific’s aging coconut trees simply can’t keep up with the growing demand,” Hiroyuki Konuma, assistant director-general of the FAO, said in a statement last week. Indonesia, the world’s leading producer, would need to replant 450,000 hectares of coconut palms to keep up with demand; the trees reach their peak production when they’re between 10 and 30 years old.

But it's in countries such as Samoa and Fiji, where a whopping 30 percent of GDP comes from coconut palms, that aging trees could have the biggest impact. And it’s not like farmers were raking in the cash in the first place. As we reported in May, the harvest from a single tree will only make a farmer about $17.50 per year.

Yet, supply may be able to catch up with demand without more trees having to be planted: Before Americans discovered their thirst for coconut water, it was often dumped when the meat was harvested. Waste not, want not.