In this day and age, coconuts seem to be, somehow, everything at once. You can buy oil from coconuts—not to be confused with butter from coconuts—and flour and sugar and milk and aminos and vinegar from coconuts. The coconut market is booming.
But the long-term outlook for coconuts? Not as 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. If future crop geneticists need to breed wheat resistance to an emerging disease or lettuce optimized to grow in drought, they can draw on the genetic diversity saved in these seeds. It’s a way to combat monoculture and an insurance against a changing world.
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 worlds, 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.