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Courting the coconut controversy

September 10, 2018

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MARCUS Samuelsson, the Ethiopian-born, Sweden-raised celebrity chef, who lives in New York, put it right about seven years ago: “Coconut is one of those love-hate ingredients.

“I happen to love coconut, particularly for that sweet and crunchy texture it adds to any dish. Not only is it delicious, but the fruit itself is versatile since all parts of it can be put to use.”

Millions of Indians, especially those living along the western and eastern coasts, would readily endorse Samuelsson’s views; but one of his ‘neighbours’, living about four hours to the north in Boston, raised a storm recently.

Karin Michels, an adjunct professor in the department of epidemiology at the Harvard T N Chan School of Public Health (who is also a director of the Institute for Prevention and Tumour Epidemiology in Germany), warned that coconut oil was “one of the worst foods you can eat,” because of the bad effect the saturated fatty acids in it have.

Describing it as “pure poison”, she said all claims about its benefits were “absolute nonsense.” The high proportion of saturated fat (more than 80 per cent) in coconuts leads to a high risk of cardiovascular disease among those consuming it, she warned.

Though coconut contributes nearly Rs350bn to the GDP, the Coconut Development Board expects a 20pc fall in exports this year because of its high price

Michels’ views raised a storm in India, where coconut is seen as a source of amazing nutrition; is used at religious ceremonies; and also sustains the lives of millions of people.

B N S Murthy, the horticulture commissioner in the agriculture ministry, urged the university “to take corrective measures by retracting the statement and come out clean by accepting the circumstances that compelled Professor Michels for the negative statements against the revered crop of billions.”

In his letter to the university, Murthy pointed out that the industry provides livelihood to more than 12 million farm families and coconut has a tradition dating back several thousand years.

Murthy also got the backing of the Asia Pacific Coconut Community, which held its annual meeting in Thailand recently, and opposed the claims of the professor.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, was more cautious in its reaction and felt there was no need to panic about the report.

Despite dire warnings by some medical professionals, coconut continues to be popular not just in India, but even in the United States and the United Kingdom. In the US, coconut oil sales peaked at about $230m in 2015, while in the UK, they shot up from £1m to £16.4m over the past four years.

A review by the American Heart Association last year revealed that 75pc of those surveyed in the US considered coconut oil to be healthy; though a little over a third of nutritionists endorsed it.

“Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD, and has no known offsetting favourable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil,” the review concluded.

The British Nutrition Foundation also found “no strong scientific evidence to support health benefits” from coconut oil, though said it could be included as part of a healthy, balanced diet and in small quantities.


COCONUT is a highly sensitive produce in India and prices shoot up or drop sharply in a short span based on supply and demand.

According to the Indian agriculture ministry, exports of products made out of coconut have shot up from less than Rs40bn in the 2004-14 decade, to nearly Rs65bn over the following five-year period.

The government is also encouraging the export of coconut products and is giving five per cent incentive under its Foreign Trade Policy 2015-20.

Annual production in India, the world’s largest producer, has shot up to 24.37bn coconuts, grown across more than two million hectares of land in all the southern states (Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), Odisha, West Bengal and Maharashtra.

Productivity has also shot up from a little over 10,000 nuts per hectare in 2013-14 to more than 11,500 nuts in 2017-18. And coconut contributes nearly Rs350bn to the gross domestic product.

The country also exports coconut oil to Malaysia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka — the three countries from where it was importing it earlier — and dry coconut to the US and Europe.

Of course, like many other crops, the coconut is also susceptible to wild fluctuations. Coconut growers in Tamil Nadu, for instance, complain of accumulation of their produce in godowns in towns like Paramthivelur along the banks of the Cauvery.

Lack of orders from other Indian states on the eve of the festive season — September is the month that brings a host of festivities in India — is worrying farmers in the southern state.

An official of the Tamil Nadu Coconut Producers and Traders’ Association points out that the lack of orders from other states is mainly because of the hike in the price of coconuts in Tamil Nadu. And because of this, almost a billion rupees’ worth of coconuts is rotting in godowns in the southern state.

But the hike in prices is evident even in neighbouring Kerala, where coconut growers are worried that it may impact exports. The Coconut Development Board expects a 20pc fall in exports — to less than Rs20bn — this year because of the high price of the product.

Other coconut-related exports have also been declining. Coconut oil exports, for instance, have slipped by 25pc this year, as against last year’s exports of 35,000 tonnes. Desiccated coconut powder exports have also dropped significantly.

Many exporters fear that coconut products from India have become uncompetitive, resulting in falling demand.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 10th, 2018