A bacteria is wiping out the world's coconuts

The coconut market is booming, but the long-term outlook is not good. In the Caribbean, bacteria that cause lethal yellowing are wiping out coconut trees—a situation so bad that a regional coordinator told Bloomberg, “It’s fair to say that at this pace, the Caribbean is running out of coconuts.” 

In Cote d’Ivoire and Papua New Guinea, lethal yellowing or a similar disease is threatening plantations specifically set up to safeguard coconut varieties for future generations. These aren’t the biggest coconut producing countries—that would be Indonesia, the Philippines, and India—but they are ominous signs for the rest of the world, especially if coconut diversity is not saved.

And coconut seeds are uniquely difficult to save for posterity. For most other crops, scientists maintain gene banks, usually in seed vaults comprising hundreds of different varieties. 

Seed vaults, though, are no use to the coconut. “It works fine for all of the temperate crops where the little seed dries down,” says Kenneth Olsen, a professor of plant biology at Washington University. “Coconut has got so much water in it.” (Coconuts seeds are literally the whole coconut.) The only way to bank coconut diversity is a living gene bank—in other words, a plantation where coconuts are grown continuously. There are five international coconut gene banks, in Brazil, Indonesia, India, Cote d'Ivoire, and Papua New Guinea. And the last two are threatened by lethal bacteria.

“Coconut gene banks need a lot of space,” says Roland Bourdeix, a coconut geneticist who works for CIRAD, a French agricultural research center focused in developing countries. That makes the gene banks expensive to maintain and also vulnerable to land grabs, especially as coconut gene banks are often in developing countries where the political situation might be unstable. Bourdeix recalls one gene bank, recently demolished to make way for horse racing, per the wishes of local mayor, and another put under the control of the ministry of police. Saving coconut diversity is not, it seems, always the most pressing concern.

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