Cracking the Coconut

Imagine farming a crop 20 meters tall, with seeds as big as your head. Now imagine trying to conserve this crop’s diversity for the world.

Most crops can be conserved in the form of a few grams of dried seed in an envelope, but the coconut is different. Even if you can find a big enough envelope, coconuts can’t be stored for more than a few months before they start to sprout. Then you have no choice but to plant them, which is why every “sample” in a coconut genebank is actually a veritable forest of up to a hundred palm trees, rather than an envelope of seeds in a cold room.

Amazingly, the International Coconut Genetic Resources Network (COGENT) is made up of 24 such genebanks across the tropics, looking after 1,680 of these samples in field collections.

More than 50 billion coconuts are harvested every year. But this will only continue if the world’s coconut diversity can be shared to overcome new diseases, droughts and pests.

New diseases are appearing, and the familiar and feared Lethal Yellowing Disease threatens to overtake popular hybrids. Varieties that need plentiful water are struggling with longer droughts. Mites, caterpillars, beetles and weevils have devastated harvests in some regions. Coconut producers need new options, and only the world’s remaining coconut diversity – scattered across four continents and three oceans – can provide this.

Sometimes the right palm is close at hand, as it was in India with the local variety Arasampatti Tall. Scientists in Aliyarnagar, India found that a single palm of this type yielded more than the major national varieties, with an average of 125 coconuts per year, while also weathering more serious droughts. The variety was multiplied and has been made available across the state of Tamil Nadu since 2002.

In other cases, varieties travel great distances to be used. The Malayan Dwarf palms are the source of much of the current resistance to Lethal Yellowing Disease, and provided the parents of hybrids grown around the world – notably through crosses made in Jamaica with a variety from Panama. However, back in Malaysia, other unique palms are now vanishing. More than half of the country’s smallholder-managed coconut plantations were converted to other uses between 1981 and 2007, uprooting valuable diversity.

The Global Crop Diversity Trust has helped coconut collections regenerate and share rare diversity. With improved technologies, genebanks may one day be able to work with pea-sized plant embryos instead of whole coconuts and palms.

In Côte d’Ivoire the Crop Trust provided a grant to the Marc Delorme Research Station, which holds collections for Africa and the Indian Ocean, to re-plant 50 samples. These were fields of trees that were aging or simply growing too tall to work with.

To reproduce a variety faithfully, the mature palms have to be hand-pollinated – and as the flowers are in the crown of the tree, this means a very tall ladder and many dizzying climbs. This work is now complete, and the re-planted samples are back to a more manageable size.

Also funded by the Crop Trust, Bioversity International and four coconut genebanks within the global network worked on technical guidelines for removing the tiny embryo from within the shell of a coconut, transporting it in test tubes, and eventually growing it into a new palm. In the future it may even be possible to cryo-preserve these embryos, freezing them in liquid nitrogen at -196°C to securely hold them for the future.

In more than 80 countries the coconut palm will continue to provide everything from food and drink to rope, cooking oil, cosmetics – and sustainable livelihoods for 10 million poor households.

Well adapted palms benefit the poorest in coconut growing regions, who rely on the trees for diverse products and income sources, often intercropping palms with their staple foods. New markets for high-grade virgin coconut oil and for coconut water, “nature’s sports drink”, have opened up in just the last few years.

Coconut palms also provide a global good in both adapting to and countering climate change. The trees flourish in extremely hot and salty environments, which are becoming more common. They are also efficient carbon sinks, turning atmospheric carbon back into (healthy, edible) oil.

Some locally favored varieties are adapted to specific needs. One sample regenerated and duplicated by Crop Trust partners was the Niu Afa palm of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, which yields the longest coconut in the world at over 45 centimeters. These were traditionally planted next to every house, where the long husk fibers could be made into cord to bind together beams in construction. In 1946, a Samoan chief explained the importance of this resource to the Irish travel writer Robert Gibbings:

“In your country, only a few men can make nails, but in Samoa, everyone can make nails.”

Samoan building methods may have changed since then, but the coconut continues to be a source of self-reliance and cultural identity for the smallholders of the tropics. Conserving global coconut diversity against climate change, pests and diseases will keep this spirit alive.


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