Coconuts and their myriad benefits have been endorsed by everyone from Madonna to Harry Belafonte - but there's much about the tropical wonder-fruit we still don't appreciate. In a three-year study supported by a Marsden Fund grant, Professor Judy Bennett of Otago University will chronicle the coconut's history as a commodity, interviewing a range of exporters, shippers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers in countries including Vanuatu, Samoa, Australia and New Zealand. She answers a few quick questions from science reporter Jamie Morton.

Why did you choose this research project?

Very few studies of any Pacific commodity - products traded or sold - have been done in the tropical Pacific.

Coconuts in the form of oil and copra have been traded with outsiders since the first visitors came in any significant numbers to the Pacific in the late 18th century.

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For many island societies, coconuts have been a major commercial staple up to the present. We want to know how the use and perceptions of the coconut have changed over time.

What will your research project involve?

Research will involve archival research in several locations, from France to New Zealand, and interviews and discussions with people along the commodity chain - growers, marketers, governments, manufacturers, shippers, retailers, and consumers.

We will produce a book and, we hope, a short documentary based on this work.

Why have coconuts been so important, historically, to the people of the Pacific Islands - and in what ways have they been used?

They were and are important primarily as a food, as creamed coconut in cooking of vegetables and fish, while the fresh coconut "water" makes a refreshing and sterile drink.

The kernel or white part, depending on age, is used to meet different needs - the soft inside of the young coconut is an excellent food for infants, for example. Coconut toddy, especially valued by atoll societies where terrestrial food sources are limited, is s rich source of vitamin B while fresh coconut water has much vitamin C.

Coconut oil was sometimes used as lighting, but more commonly as a cosmetic and in medicines. In both old and new religious ceremonies the coconut features often as an offering to spiritual powers.

But the coconut palm as a whole has many uses - the main stem is used in construction and today in furniture-making.

The coconut palm leaf is used to make thatch, baskets and mats. Fibre from the husk can be made into a rope, often used to make a bed mattress base, for example.

For all these purposes the coconut is king but it also can be sold for cash as the nut in local markets or for export as copra or oil.

But export depends on finding markets and dealing with economies of scale as well as fluctuating prices across the decades.

In what novel ways might coconuts be used in the future?

There is nothing new in using coconuts as a food and for cosmetics or beauty products.
What is more recent is the growing market for these in overseas countries.

You have only to look around on supermarket shelves and on the internet to see the marketers at work.

What concerns me is that some is marketed in New Zealand as though it is from places such as Samoa, but it is actually from somewhere like Thailand.

In terms of our place in the world, New Zealand might be wiser encouraging support for Pacific island exports.

Another use in the islands is a a biofuel.

Since fuel imports are exceedingly costly in small island groups, new sources of power need to be utilised.

Solar power is an obvious one but another possibility is the use of coconut oil in islands with a surplus of coconuts, so long as this does not detract from their use as a staple food.

How have environmental factors over time, such as fluctuations in climate and rainfall, affected coconut production and distribution?

Coconut palms are very hardy and long lived.

But periods of drought cause a decrease in the number of nuts that are produced or mature fully. Severe drought will see the palm die.

Of course, coconut palms, like all other vegetation, suffers in cyclones and are often uprooted.

Coconut palms prefer coastal sandy areas but will grow inland, though if too far inland where temperatures often drop, they will not produce nuts. And they will not grow well in shade among higher trees.

That is one reason why they flourish along the coast, as their tolerance for salty soils is not matched by trees that could grow higher.

Is there anything to suggest that with a warming climate, they might become more common or a more valuable food source, particularly here in New Zealand?

In the far distant future, if we as a species do not act to reduce carbon emissions, then perhaps the coconut will grow in the far north of New Zealand, but in the foreseeable future this is hard to imagine.

The coconut palm needs conditions of high humidity with rainfall over the year of more than 1000 mm, and a mean daily temperature of 12-13C or more every day of the year.
If, in the long term, global warming can do this, then perhaps it can happen in Northland.

Is there anything particularly intriguing about coconuts that the average Kiwi might not be aware of? And are there any misconceptions?

Most coconuts we see in New Zealand are already husked or have part of the husk removed.

Unless you have the right tools and know-how the de-husking of the coconut is hard to those unused to it in daily life.

Another challenge for the average non-islander is how to get the white kernel out of the nut.

Having ripped my hand the first time I tried this years ago, I suggest that one should either leave it to the experts or get some lessons.

We often see promotional images of tourists sitting under a coconut palm lazing away the day. One rarely sees island people in the Pacific doing this, as coconuts drop at any time of the day or night.

If one lands on the head, that can be fatal.