Even as global demand for all-things-coconut increases, coconut production in Asia is stagnating because farmers aren't paid enough to make it worthwhile.
North Americans are crazy for coconut. If it’s coconut oil, we want to wash our faces and clean our teeth with it. If it’s coconut water, we drink it after workouts for ‘enhanced’ hydration. The number of coconut water products on the market have quintupled between 2008 and 2013. You’d think that coconut farmers in tropical producing countries would be jumping for joy, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. Farmers are not benefiting from North American interest in their product.
The problem, as usual, is that consumers aren’t willing to pay enough for their favourite new commodity. Coconut products are relative newcomers to mainstream markets in North America, and there’s little information available about production standards, at least compared to other tropical imports. Fair trade certification for coffee, chocolate, and tea is on everyone’s radar, whether or not they choose to support it, but the same discussion is almost absent from coconut products. It's difficult to find fair trade coconut oil, water, or milk in stores.
According to an article in TIME, North Americans would be smart to start paying a fair price for their coconut products because farmers are not happy with how little money they make. The Asian Pacific Coconut Community (APCC), based in Jakarta, says that coconut farms across Asia are experiencing zero growth and, in some cases, getting smaller as farmers sell off land in order to switch to more profitable crops, such as palm oil.
Coconut farmers, who are among the poorest of the poor in countries like Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Indonesia, usually grow mono-crops, which makes them susceptible to environmental change. Coconuts are sold to middlemen, who often resell them to processing factories for 50 percent more. The prices are low to begin with. Fair Trade USA says farmers receive about $0.12 - $0.25 per nut, while the average serving of coconut water (from one nut) sells for $1.50 in the U.S. A farmer’s annual income ranges from $72 to $7,000.
Now that the Sri Lanka government offers subsidies for chemical fertilizers, fewer farmers have incentive to switch from conventional to organic production. TIME describes one farmer named B.A. Karunarathana, whose trees have become 75 percent less productive over the past three decades because his landlord refuses to invest in fertilizers or new trees. He makes less money now than he did when he took over the farm from his father. Unless the land improves greatly, he says his son will have to find something else to do.
“Curbing the slow decline in coconut yields will be crucial for farmers and investors alike if global demand continues to grow. If not, people will simply leave, and the coconuts will stop coming.”
If you really love your coconut oil (as I do), then it’s worth seeking out fair trade brands that guarantee decent pay for farmers and workers and enforce higher agricultural standards. All of these things come together to ultimately create a more secure export market. If the cost of the fair trade coconut products are staggeringly high and unaffordable compared to conventional ones, then maybe we just shouldn’t buy so much of them.
Here are some reputable fair trade suppliers of coconut oil:
Level Ground: Direct Fair Trade Coconut Oil (also available for sale at Ten Thousand Villages stores)