Science Blog

Escaping Lethal Yellowing

Luigi Guarino|Director of Science and Programs

Readers of a certain age may remember a catchy but ever-so-slightly annoying tune from the late 70s called “Escape,” which also went by the even more annoying subtitle of “The Piña Colada Song.” I forget who sang it, but it was everywhere at the time. Stripped down to its essentials, the song was an unedifying paean to the curative and restorative powers of consuming alcohol in tropical settings, with special reference to the eponymous drink. A sweet concoction involving rum, coconut cream, and pineapple juice, the piña colada is the quintessential Caribbean cocktail.

But for how long? Recent news out of the Caribbean is alarming for escapists:

“It’s fair to say that at this pace, the Caribbean is running out of coconuts,” said Compton Paul, coordinator of a regional coconut program at the Trinidad-based Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute.

The reasons include storms, droughts, and the failure to replace old trees and to invest in fertilizers. But perhaps the deadliest threat comes from a disease, aptly called Lethal Yellowing. This is caused by a phytoplasma, a sort of bacteria spread by insects, and it has been devastating palms (and not just coconuts) in the Caribbean, Central America and Florida for decades. As with much else, the best form of cure is prevention; except that in this case prevention is the only cure. That means enforcing strict quarantine measures, and planting resistant coconut varieties.

Of which, fortunately, there are some good ones, thanks to the diligence of coconut breeders and the reservoir of diversity that they’ve fortunately been able to call upon from the world’s coconut genebanks. So actually there is some hope for the Caribbean’s coconuts. With adequate investment in replanting with resistant varieties, and a little luck with those storms and droughts, the long-term future of the piña colada need not be cause for undue concern.

That doesn’t mean that we can all relax and sip our drinks in peace in the shade of everlastingly healthy fronds, however. Because there are other things out there threatening coconuts, both in the plantations of the smallholders who rely on them for their livelihoods, and in the genebanks that breeders rely on to fix the next problem that those smallholders are inevitably going to face. Coconut genebanks are nothing more than huge fields planted with different varieties. They’re difficult and expensive to maintain; and they’re vulnerable to all sorts of threats, from lightning strikes to diseases.

Lethal yellowing is now in West Africa, which is home to one of the world’s most important collections of coconut genetic resources, just outside Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire. And a similar disease, Bogia Coconut Syndrome, is threatening another important collection, this time in Papua New Guinea. We at the Crop Trust have been working with the Stewart Research Station of the PNG Cocoa & Coconut Research Institute (CCI), the International Coconut Genetic Resources Network (COGENT), the Pacific Community (SPC) and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) to come up with a plan to save that collection. It’s now being implemented by SPC, with support from the PNG Government and the UK’s Darwin Initiative.

But much remains to be done to ensure that these and other internationally important coconut collections are not only safe from the imminent threat of disease, but also receive adequate, sustained funding for the long term. It’s not just a cloying drink (or song, for that matter) that is at stake, but the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of coconut farmers and their families the world over.

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