Celia Dolan graduated from Stonehill College in December 2018 with a Bachelor of Arts in environmental studies. While studying at Stonehill, she was a Moreau Student Minister, Writing Consultant and Writing Fellow, Teacher’s Assistant, member of the Handbell Choir, Real Food Calculator for Food Truth, and Community Engagement Coordinator. Celia participated in a HOPE trip that visited the peaceful, sustainable Agape Community in Ware, MA; traveled to Italy with The Mindful Palette: Food, Art, and Sustainability class; and went to Oregon and Northern California with the Coastal Pacific Northwest class. Another of her favorite classes was Nature Writing where she combined her love of the environment, art, and creative writing. She currently works as the Assistant Farm Manager at The Farm at Stonehill where she strengthens her passion for sustainability, farming, and food justice while exploring her interest in outdoor and agricultural education. When she’s not working, you can find Celia hiking, listening to music, reading, and writing in various ways (think: nature writing, poetry, and articles for NOFA, Ecopreneur, and other non-profit organizations).
The Coconut Craze
Health and preventative medicine are on a lot of people’s minds right now. Across the globe, everyone eagerly awaits a vaccine for COVID-19. In the meantime, people are doing their best to stay active and healthy. Many are focusing on food as medicine and, as a result, are purchasing more local produce, or starting their own home gardens. This renewed push for local fruits and veggies has many benefits. But, have you considered the environmental and social impacts of other staple foods, like cooking oils, that are not local?
Take coconut oil, for example. A coconut craze has gripped the Western world; people approve of coconut and various coconut products for their health benefits and lesser negative environmental impacts when compared to palm and canola oil. According to Grist, “the use of coconut oil grew 780 percent between 2008 and 2012,” and Daily Emerald states the U.S. is the largest importer of coconut oil. Yet, coconuts are not a perfect product in terms of sustainability.
Here are some of the problems associated with the dramatic increase in coconut production and consumption:
Emissions: Most coconuts are produced in Indonesia, India, and the Philippines. Food that has to travel so far to the U.S. contributes to emissions, which is particularly problematic considering “food transportation is quickly becoming one of the world’s fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions.” Furthermore, the packaging needed to protect coconuts and keep them fresh often contributes to emissions by 1) adding to shipping weight, 2) releasing emissions during their production, and 3) contributing to emissions when they are shipped for recycling or other disposal.
Shipping is not the only contributor to coconuts’ emissions; the process used to create shredded coconut releases “gaseous emissions due to the burning of firewood in factory furnaces.” When creating coconut oil, which requires only the inner meat of the coconut, the husk and other parts are usually burned. This burning “releases a significant amount of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.”
Monocultures: Planting a monoculture means that a single crop is grown repeatedly on the same land. Many coconut farmers have shifted toward this monoculture method to meet demand. Coconut trees are long-lived, but they become less productive with age and they take a while to grow. Therefore, many coconut farmers plant more and more coconuts by removing native plants and habitats and replacing them with monocultural crops of coconut. This practice is detrimental for various reasons:
- It increases loss of biodiversity, which in turn harms native species and contributes to the spread of disease amongst crops.
- It takes a toll on the soil, which requires a greater input of fertilizer (more on this below).
- It harms ecosystems and contributes to loss of habitat, particularly coastal mangroves, which are essential ecosystems for animals and provide natural storm protection.
Government Subsidies: As farmers plant monocultures, replacing native ecosystems that naturally enrich the soil, they must increase fertilizer application. Usually, these fertilizers are chemical in nature. Ordinarily, chemical fertilizers would be more expensive than organic practices, but organic methods are often perceived as less effective, or more time consuming. In reaction to the apparent need for chemical fertilizers, some governments, like the Sri Lankan government, have enacted plans that subsidize chemical fertilizers. These chemicals also contribute to pollution. Topical fertilizers often contaminate soil, run-off into water, and pollute the air.
Pollution: Chemical fertilizers are not the only pollutants at play. The processing of coconuts themselves further increases pollution. According to a study published in the Journal of the Coconut Research Institute of Sri Lanka, when creating shredded coconut, “the pollution caused…is a serious problem…Effluent has usually been released into streams, paddy fields, etc, [which] causes damage to water courses, paddy fields, etc.” The study also notes that in the creation of coconut fibre, husks are often soaked in coastal lagoons or backwaters and “have a markedly adverse effect on fish, crustaceans, etc.” Processing coconut fibre also “causes an extensive pollution problem…Leaching of salts from the mounds [of coconut scraps] could affect ground water and wells.”
Chemicals: In addition to the chemical fertilizers previously addressed, chemicals are also used in refining coconut oil. Conventional coconut oil brands bleach and deodorize the oil, “using chemicals like hexane, which is classified as a neurotoxin by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, and as a hazardous pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency.”
Farmer Health & Standard of Living: Using those chemicals, and producing coconuts on such a large scale, can have a negative impact on the health and quality of life for coconut farmers and factory workers. A study found that the incidence of tuberculosis among workers who bleach coconut fibre was statistically significant. Furthermore, “all the workers had stomatological problems with around 80 percent a) having carious teeth or having had several dental extractions since joining the factory and b) having recession of gums.” Oftentimes, coconut farmers – like many farmers who work on industrial farms – toil in poverty, making $0.12-0.25 per coconut. Even those who do not work directly with coconuts can be negatively impacted; “large volumes of smoke and irritant gases resulting daily from [coconut] charcoal burning operations give rise to numerous…complaints from those residing and working” nearby.
So, what can we use instead of, or as a supplement to, our indulgence in coconut oil and other coconut products? Locally produced ghee is a great alternative!
Ghee – An Alternative to Unsustainable Oils
You may be wondering, what exactly is ghee? Herbalist Hannah Jacobson-Hardy wondered the same when she first heard about ghee through a yoga program in the Berkshires. She learned ghee is called the nectar of the gods and has been celebrated for thousands of years in the Indian Ayurvedic medicinal tradition. Ghee is simply clarified butter. This means that butter is slowly simmered to remove moisture, milk solids, and impurities. Thanks to this process, ghee has the following qualities:
- It doesn’t contain lactose or casein, so it is a healthier choice for folks with dairy allergies.
- Unlike butter, ghee doesn’t need to be refrigerated. Instead, it is shelf stable for up to 6 months, or can last up to a year if you choose to refrigerate it.
- Ghee is an ideal oil for high-heat cooking; it can tolerate up to 485°F whereas butter and coconut oil burn at 350°F
- According to Ayurvedic medicine, ghee is the best oil for the human body, revered for its delicious taste, nutritional benefits, and healing qualities. It stimulates digestion; reduces inflammation; optimizes joint, skin, and eye health; contains omega-3 and omega-9 essential fatty acids and vitamins A, D, E, and K.
The benefits of ghee may seem too good to be true, especially on a local scale. Yet, you’re in luck!
Full Moon Ghee
Full Moon Ghee is made in Greenfield, MA and can be found in stores across the Northeast or ordered online. Jacobson-Hardy founded Full Moon Ghee after some friends gave her a jar of ghee for her birthday. As soon as she tried it, she thought ghee was so incredible that she wanted to make it herself. On a whim, she brought extra homemade jars to a farmer’s market and was pleasantly surprised when it sold out that day. Thus, the company Full Moon Ghee was born. Full Moon Ghee has flourished since, growing from a few home kitchen batches and handwritten labels to a community kitchen and selling at Whole Foods – and it is no surprise given the various benefits of ghee.
Like many of us, Jacobson-Hardy often used coconut oil for her cooking but began to wonder where it came from and how coconut farmers were treated. When she found ghee as an alternative, she loved it. According to Jacobson-Hardy, ghee is one of the healthiest options if you want a high quality fat in your diet. The most important fact for consumers to know, she says, is that it’s a myth that fat makes you fat; other factors like sugar and carbs cause weight gain. There are four different kinds of fat in food and the fat in ghee is very healthy. It helps with skin problems, digestive issues, inflammation, even glaucoma. Adding medicinal herbs doubles its potency as the fat in ghee helps extract medicinal constituents of the spices.
These amazing health benefits give some insight to why ghee is seen as such a precious gift in Indian and Ayurvedic tradition. Jacobson-Hardy is mindful of the cultural significance of ghee and ensures Full Moon Ghee is created with the same reverence and care as it is traditionally made in India. “The company is a community effort with a few friends making ghee together on the full moon. We have a peaceful, prayer-oriented way of making the ghee and infuse that energy into the product.”
For Jacobson-Hardy, crafting ghee is not only vital for putting into practice the sentiment that food is medicine; it also encourages sustainability in the dairy industry. At the same time that Jacobson-Hardy was seeking a local alternative to coconut oil, she noticed local dairy farms were going out of business. She saw this problem as a solution, recognizing that sustainability and permaculture are focused on the idea of using what resources we have. Jacobson-Hardy approached local dairy farmers about purchasing butter to make ghee. Many of them had never heard of ghee, but she altered their understanding. Now, thanks to a co-op, Full Moon Ghee sources all of its butter from Massachusetts dairy farms where cows are treated ethically and without hormones or antibiotics.
Supporting local dairy farms is just a small part of Jacobson-Hardy’s work in sustainability. She believes that sustainability is important because “we have no other choice. It’s a very precious gift to be on this Earth. We need to see every animal and plant as part of the Earth and connected to who we are. Without the elements, there wouldn’t be us. We’re made from bacteria, viruses, magical things we don’t understand. It’s a beautiful world out there, and we have to honor it.” For Jacobson-Hardy, supporting the environment is a natural step. She believes she wouldn’t be happy doing anything that would degrade the Earth. Rather, she was put here to leave it in a better condition than how she found it.
Being sustainable, supporting local dairy farms, and founding Full Moon Ghee wasn’t easy. Ghee requires a lot of butter and most local dairy farms are small, so there can be a problem with scale. Education was also a challenge. Many people are not familiar with ghee, but keto, paleo, and Whole30 movements are making ghee more popular. Jacobson-Hardy has seen customers transform from those asking, “What is ghee” to those exclaiming “I only eat your ghee!”. With each little change she sees, each person reevaluating how they interact with the world, she knows the hard work has been worth it.
Like many of her customers, Jacobson-Hardy doesn’t use coconut oil anymore for cooking and has replaced it with ghee. Since it has a high smoke point, she finds ghee to be very forgiving and especially good for pancakes, crepes, eggs, and other foods you need the pan to be hot for. She also uses it on rashes, bug bites, and burns as a topical cream. It could even be added to beeswax to make a lip balm or hand cream! “It’s a heal all salve,” she says.
Ghee is so beneficial, especially when compared to the sometimes shady production of coconut products. Full Moon Ghee’s founder encourages us to remember, “we’re all connected.” So, the next time you shop for groceries, keep this connection in mind. Consider some of the negative impacts of coconut oil on both environmental and social responsibility. While coconut oil is better to purchase than products with palm oil, for example, there is an even better option: ghee!
No matter what you choose to buy, coconut oil, ghee, or any other product that brings joy and health to your life, we encourage you to consider each facet of the product. How was it made? Who produced it and how were they treated? How did it arrive at the store, or at your home? Be sure to look into the products you’re buying and don’t fall too quickly for the latest trends. Contemplate why it may be a trend and how that trend impacts people and the environment. If you are thoughtful and make little changes by supporting truly environmentally friendly companies, you can have a tremendous positive impact on the future of our world.
Want to learn more about Full Moon Ghee? Check out their website!
“Are Coconut Products Bad for the Environment?” Grist, 25 Nov. 2016, https://grist.org/food/are-coconut-products-bad-for-the-environment/
Hoag, Becky. “The Environmental Impact of the Coconut Oil Craze.” Daily Emerald, 25 Apr.
R. H. Wickramasinghe, “Biomedical and environmental aspects of some coconut-derived products and their production processes in Sri Lanka”, Cocos (Journal of the Coconut Research Institute of Sri Lanka) 13(1998/99) 8-20.
Riley, Tess. “Coconut Water: How Its Popularity Has Affected the Supply Chain.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 15 Aug. 2014, www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/aug/15/coconut-water-popularity-supply-chain-farmers-kerela.