UK aid and how it’s spent has once again caused fury this week, after tabloids caught on to the fact taxpayers’ money is going towards coconut farms in the South Pacific.
Some £317,000 of UK aid money is being contributed to these coconut farms in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Samoa.
The investment is part of the South Pacific International Coconut Gene bank; a project that safeguards coconut varieties for future generations.
It’s a “waste of money” was the rallying cry of tabloid headlines, along with a pithy “this is nuts.”
Conservative MP Peter Bone has been particularly vocal in slamming the investment, claiming it “brings the whole programme into disrepute.”
But does it? What is it about coconuts in the South Pacific that makes them worthy of UK aid support?
We asked Vincent Johnson, science editor at Bioversity International, which supports the International Coconut Genetic Resources Network (COGENT) to promote global collaboration for conserving coconut diversity.
He explained that, right now, UK aid money is going towards starting two satellite gene banks in Fiji and Samoa. It’s paying for researchers to assess which varieties of coconut palms are most under threat and to collect those varieties so they can be maintained.
The challenge, he said, is to maintain diversity; to make sure that we can protect coconuts and pass them on to future generations.
“What’s important for us is how we can support the people who depend on coconuts. It’s all very well for an MP to say what he said, but there are millions and millions of people who depend on coconuts for their livelihoods. We all have different diets around the world, and we all depend on different crops for our food,” he said.
“A much-quoted figure is 10 to 12 million farmers who rely on coconuts, but in reality it’s probably more like hundreds of millions of people across the world.”
But as well as being a staple food source for Pacific islanders, coconuts are also a lucrative export product. The coconut market has been valued at an estimated $92 billion worldwide, and 89% of those coconuts are grown in Asia – including the South Pacific islands.
MP Bone’s argument is that “what we should be doing is trading with these countries, not giving them money in the first place.”
But Johnson points out is that the markets in these countries aren’t set up yet for trade of that level.
“Most coconuts are produced on small plantations that need to be bulked up. The farmers and the scientists who live on and protect coconuts still need a lot of development in terms of breeding, growing, trading, marketing, lots of things,” he said.
“We have the expertise and the resources, so we have a moral duty to help. Why can’t we support the industry to get on its feet in the short-term so it can survive in the long-term? They still need help.”
It may seem to the casual onlooker that coconuts are flourishing. When you visit the countries that supply the global coconut market, coconut trees are everywhere, right?
But this could be disguising a future problem. Coconut diversity is facing constant threat from climate change and the possibility of rising sea levels, drought, pests, and the spread of disease.
Right now, the Papua New Guinea coconut gene bank – established to preserve coconut diversity – is itself threatened by the spread of a lethal disease, Bogia Syndrome Disease.
Helping to meet these challenges, and therefore securing the coconut as a food source now and in the future, is the aim of initiatives like COGENT.
Many people are aware of the existence of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, north of the Arctic Circle, where seeds from many of the world’s crops are stored, frozen, in case a crisis wipes out that crop.
But coconuts can’t be stored in seed banks like Svalbard, because coconuts are uniquely difficult to store. Coconuts can’t be dried, frozen, or preserved for decades, because essentially the whole coconut is the seed. They have to be preserved as living trees, growing outside in gene banks, or as embryos or as pollen.
And so gene banks like that in the South Pacific, like that the UK Aid is funding, are vital.
“The world needs to preserve two copies of every variety in case there’s a crisis. We have to think about the future, and how we survive such crises. We need to prepare for that.”
The UK Aid investment in these coconut gene banks is led by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
DEFRA said in a statement: “Our overseas development funding is used to preserve natural resources and protect iconic species. This project will help preserve an essential food source for more than eight million families in Pacific islands from the impacts of pests and diseases.”
UK Aid is all about working towards achieving the sustainable development goals – a set of 17 goals established by the UN, which include ending poverty and hunger, and combatting climate change.
Johnson said: “Our work is very much focussed on achieving those sustainable development goals. That’s what the UK tax is going towards.”