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Asia’s other aging population problem: coconuts

Alberto Pomares | E+ | Getty Images

The aging demographic in much of Asia is a well-known concern, but the region faces another worry about a population that grew up in the years after World War II: the coconut trees are getting old.

The Asia-Pacific region produces around 90 percent of the world's coconut products, including coconut water, oil and milk as well as timbers used in construction, with global demand for these products growing at more than 10 percent a year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, or FAO.

Coconut trees reach their peak production of as much as 400 coconuts a year between 10 and 30 years of age, but with many of the region's trees planted shortly after World War II, their production is declining, the FAO said, noting regional production has been growing around 2 percent annually.

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"Asia and the Pacific's aging coconut trees simply can't keep up with the growing demand," said Hiroyuki Konuma, assistant director-general and regional representative for FAO, in a statement.

It's a big business: in the Philippines, coconut oil is a top-10 export, with around $918.4 million worth of coconut commodity products exported from January to July, up 7.7 percent from the year-earlier period, compared with total exports of $30.42 billion over the period. Indonesia, India and the Philippines account for around 70 percent of global coconut-product production, the FAO said.

"(The) livelihoods of one in every five Filipinos are directly or indirectly dependent on the coconut sector," said Romulo Arancon, executive director of the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community, in the FAO statement.

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"Propelled by the health and wellness trend, global demand for coconuts is set to grow steadily over the medium to long term," said Simone Baroke, an analyst at consultancy Euromonitor in a May note. She noted coconuts not only have significantly lower fat levels compared with other nuts, their main fatty acid constituent is lauric acid, which helps elevate "good" cholesterol, making it more heart healthy.

She expects demand for fresh coconuts to grow around 25 percent over 2012-2017.

Replanting aging trees to keep up with growing demand is a key concern, but it's hampered by the industry's fragmented nature. While large conglomerates control much of the region's oil palm plantations, most coconut growers are small farmers. Around 95 percent of coconut trees are harvested by small-holders, according to the FAO.

"Many of the coconut farmers, especially in top producer the Philippines are poor to begin with, so even if they want to replace the trees on their plots of land, they may not be able to do so," said Rene Pastor, editor of the Southeast Asia Commodity Digest, via email.

While the Philippine government is "very engaged" in replanting, many small farmers "are not sure whether they can trust the government program to help them out," he said.

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The Philippine Coconut Authority is planning to purchase four million coconut seedlings in 2014, although this is dwarfed by the around 340 million coconut producing trees in the country, planted on around 3.56 million hectares.

In Indonesia, which has around 3.23 million hectares under production, a 1997 FAO study estimated about 50 percent of the palms, or around 185.6 million trees, were old and unproductive, requiring replanting.

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Low prices are hampering replanting efforts. "The recent surge in demand has not yet translated into better prices for coconut farmers in Asia Pacific and Latin America," Euromonitor's Baroke noted. She cited data from the Philippine Coconut Authority showing that even though export volumes rose 1.49 percent in 2012, the value dropped by nearly 22 percent.

The low prices may also encourage farmers to cut down trees for lumber. The Philippine government developed a policy of regulating tree cutting of coconut trees as the price of the trunks had encouraged farmers to indiscriminately cut productive trees, the 1997 FAO study noted.

—By CNBC's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on twitter @LeslieShaffer1

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