Coconut water is a trendy alternative to sports drinks for many people, despite a lack of scientific evidence to prove it is any more hydrating than regular water. But now, researchers in Uganda have found that coconut water is really useful for something other than human hydration — artificially inseminating pigs.
Uganda has the highest pork consumption in East Africa, with each person eating around 7.5 pounds (3.4 kilograms) of the meat per year, according to the International Livestock Research Institute (opens in new tab). However, pig-breeding methods in many of Uganda's remote villages make it challenging for farmers to produce enough pork to meet demand, according to SciDev.net (opens in new tab), an outlet dedicated to scientific discoveries in developing nations. In most villages, farmers breed one or two boars with dozens of females in the region, which leads to inbreeding. Hogs that are inbred produce lower-quality meat that is very high in fat. The animals are also more prone to outbreaks of diseases such as African swine fever — a deadly viral disease that causes fevers and internal bleeding in pigs — and porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSv) — a respiratory disease that causes reproductive failure in sows.
To solve these problems, Ugandan government are investigating the possibility of introducing artificial insemination to pig farming — injecting sperm from high-quality boars into sows to get them pregnant without mating. However, transporting sperm from these boars to farms across the country before the sperm dies is challenging, as the boars are uncommonand are geographically isolated. Now, researchers involved in a project (opens in new tab) funded by Uganda's Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) have found that using coconut water to store sperm as it is transported helps the sperm live 24 times longer than normal (their findings have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed study).
"Outside a boar’s body, the spermatozoa will live for about 4 hours, after which they start to die due to starvation and temperature change, but when it is added to coconut water, they will live for up to 96 hours, allowing insemination at the appropriate time," project researcher Joab Malanda, a pig production expert at Egerton University in Njoro, Kenya, told SciDev.net.
Coconut water is the clear liquid found inside coconuts (not to be confused with coconut milk, which is a mix of water and liquid from the white meat that surrounds the water inside the fruit). It is high in electrolytes such as potassium, sodium and manganese, as well as antioxidants, and it has a low sugar content, which has led to some people using it as an alternative to sports drinks, according to the Mayo Clinic (opens in new tab).
However, experts are unconvinced that coconut water is a healthy alternative to sports drinks. "Some evidence suggests that coconut water is comparable to sports drinks," according to the Mayo Clinic. "But it's no more hydrating than plain water," which is the "smart choice" for hydration.
However, scientists found that sodium and potassium in the water are also great for keeping pig sperm alive. As part of the project, which started in 2017 and has involved more than 1,000 farmers, researchers found that coconut water improved success rates in semen transportation, and, as a result, showed that pig farming networks could use artificial insemination to increase productivity.(opens in new tab)
But there is still work to do. Farmers have to be trained by experts to use the sperm to inseminate pigs. Extracting coconut water for artificial insemination also requires farmers to use effective sterilization techniques, the researchers said. RUFORUM has now established Uganda's first pig farming association, which should make training farmers easier.
The researchers hope that using coconut water could help other farmers across Africa to artificially inseminate pigs and boost pork production. This could help combat food production challenges caused by overpopulation and climate change, according to SciDev.net.
"Artificial insemination can be adopted sustainably and scaled up anywhere else, especially among smallholder farmers," lead researcher Elly Ndyomugyenyi, a livestock management expert at Gulu University in Uganda, told SciDev.net. "This is mainly because coconut fruit is in almost every part of the African continent."
Originally published on Live Science.