Cashew Nightmare and Other Food Dilemmas

As people who care about the Earth and her creatures, we constantly grapple with the pain of finding out that something we’ve been doing (that we thought was beneficial, or at least neutral) is bad for the planet. One example: Many people go vegan, not only to reduce the footprint of their diet but also to reduce animal suffering. (Personal note: I’m omnivore myself–feel healthiest when my diet includes some animal protein–but I’m always challenging myself to increase my percentage of vegetarian and vegan meals for the aforementioned reasons.)

For vegans, a popular source of protein is nuts, and nut butter. Well, come to find out that one of the most popular nuts, cashews, is extremely rough on the workers who shell the nuts. Turns out that cashews have two layers of shell, and between the two layers is a caustic acid that causes hideous chronic burns on the hands of the women in India who are paid just a little over $2 a day to shell them. (Article in The Daily Mail by Emily Clark; amply documented with photos.) The explosion in demand for cashews has led to an increase in human suffering.

Besides India, the other main source of cashews is Vietnam. Being a richer country, Vietnam has been able to mechanize its industry. The mechanization has reduced overhead costs (the usual reason for mechanization in the first place). This has driven prices down, which in turn is making conditions even tougher for the workers in India. (I imagine also that the mechanization has increased the suffering of Vietnamese workers, because they lost their jobs to machines. The article doesn’t mention that so I’ll have to look into it.)

I learned the cashew thing completely by accident, when someone in the Journey to Zero-Waste group mentioned it in passing as the reason she doesn’t eat cashew butter. I did a Google search and found the Daily Mail article. All too often, this is how it goes. You’re going along thinking this or that choice you’re making is OK, and then BOOM. Suddenly you find out that yet another thing you’re doing is bad for the planet. It can feel like a lost cause; sometimes you feel like, “Why bother!” (I know I feel that way sometimes.) But that’s not the lesson we should take from this. Rather, the invitation is to recognize that we live in a complex world, and we can always only do our best. We can’t help what we didn’t know. And once we know better, we do better.

So what do we do when we find out something we’re buying is causing damage? A traditional activist solution is to boycott the thing in question. But boycotting just leads to another flavor of suffering, as the Indian workers lose their jobs. A humanitarian nonprofit mentioned in the article suggests instead that importers, retailers, and other buyers seek out cashew processing centers that offer humane conditions (such as protecting their workers with gloves). But this will require that consumers be willing to pay more. (Gloves slow down the shelling process, so workers don’t want to wear them, even if they could afford to buy them. Presumably, by consumers being willing to pay more, we’d allow the bosses to ease up their production quotas so the workers could afford to wear gloves.) 

Cashews are just one example; variations on this pattern are playing out worldwide, and the solutions will have to include not only paying more for what I refer to in my book as “faraway exotic treats,” but also making a shift to getting the bulk of our food from closer to home, and paying our local farmers the full price of producing food under conditions that are humane to animals, the land, and workers. 

This morning in my local paper I stumbled on another piece of food news that turns out to be related to this topic: Supermarket shortages of meat and other food notwithstanding, there’s plenty of meat if you can afford it. (Bloomberg News article by Lydia Mulvany, Deena Shanker, and Kim Chipman; published in the Daytona Beach News-Journal.) Local/organic and artisanal meats continue to be available in abundant supply. On the downside, shortages of cheap factory-farmed meat are exposing the gaps between the Haves and Have-Nots. On the upside: Local and organic farmers are getting more business, from those who can afford to pay. This is building much-needed resilience into local food supply lines. And as this demand persists, it will presumably create more good jobs, not only at existing farms but also by enticing new people into local/organic farming. Over time, prices should become more accessible to all. I know this is no consolation right now to the low-income mother who’s trying to feed her four kids and has come to depend on being able to buy meat for $2.99 a pound, not $6 or $8 or $12. 

But really, we have to face up to that $2.99-a-pound meat. Our cushy industrialized consumer life is rotten at the core and deep down we know it. Our food is not priced in keeping with what it’s taking from the earth, and it is raised under brutal conditions. Brutal on the animals, and on the humans who work on the farms and in the processing plants. And yet, the same as with the cashew-shellers, the meat-processing plant workers stand to suffer greatly if their jobs vanish. Again, it’s going to take (among those of us who are able to afford to take this on) a willingness to buy local and pay more. And there are going to be some tectonic agonies as the landscape shifts. I hate that the brunt of it will fall on the lower-income workers who’ve been enduring the brutal conditions to produce our too-cheap food. But it’s a thing we all have to wake up to, and help each other through together.

And another other food-related news item (seems I can’t even get through a blog post without stumbling into yet another article, but in this case it’s my fault for checking in to a Facebook group in the middle of composing a blog post <wink>): Someone in one of my Florida eco groups mentioned that Florida now has a capybara problem (Orlando Weekly, Colin Wolf): The giant rodents native to South America are on a rampage chewing up native trees and other plants.

As a permaculturist (and one concerned about food supply chains, and working conditions), the first thing I did was look up “capybaras edible.” I thought I had heard they were, and my memory was correct. “Capybara are native to South America, where the meat is considered a delicacy. Salt-cured capybara is consumed during Lent in Venezuela, where the popularity of the dish prompted the Vatican to declare that capybara isn’t meat but fish.”

A fellow member of that Florida eco group I mentioned, a gentleman who does some kind of work on wetlands, mentioned that his employees on a project were from Guatemala, and when they found capybaras eating the vegetation, they did the natural thing and cooked them. The guy didn’t join his workers in their feast but said the meat smelled delicious.

Our landscape here in Florida is overrun with feral hogs, escaped pet pythons, and other invasive-but-tasty protein. Where you live, too, there are probably similarly problematic and similarly tasty invasive creatures running around. Surely a part of fixing our food supply chains (not only in logistical terms but also in terms of reducing human and animal suffering) will be to start looking to our locally abundant wild/feral protein.

In the past when I’ve suggested this to likeminded folks, people have said it’s a great idea but there are way too many invasive critters for us to eat. “We’ve never been able to eat our way out of the hog problem,” a friend commented. But things might be different now that the factory-meat supply lines have created shortages of conventionally farmed meat. Sometimes people need a nudge! #NewSupplyLines #EatLocal

On a final note, something that has often kept me awake at nights is what I’m going to call here the “prosperity-to-privation spiral.” This is, in a nutshell: Some part of the world where indigenous people are minding their own business living off the land, suddenly learns they have a crop or other product that is desired by people in some wealthier country(ies). Cashews or coffee or whatever. The external demand initially creates jobs that make the indigenous people prosperous beyond their wildest dreams. They can buy motorbikes, have TVs, send their kids to college, whatever. (I am grossly oversimplifying here but this is the gist.) 

But then, from the same rich countries that generated those jobs, comes downward price-pressure (because that is how things go; consumers in wealthy industrialized countries are relentlessly bargain-seeking, and therefore retailers are relentless, and therefore producers are relentless in squeezing more from their workers). So then the conditions for the indigenous workers become more and more brutal. But the jobs are still irresistible to the workers, because they have no better source of income. In many cases the people end up so caught up in the money that they deplete their own land and other resources.

(A guy in my church discussion group, this morning by Zoom, happened to mention that the people of Thailand are doing this very thing to satisfy the world’s appetite for shrimp. Sacrificing their own land, their own health. He mentioned it in a different context; I had not brought up any of what I’m writing here. Just goes to show you how synchronistic things can be. Also goes to show why some of my blog posts might end up feeling to some of you like an overstuffed closet, because I can’t resist cramming “just one more related tidbit I stumbled on” into a post. <wink again>)

Speaking of cramming in one more thing, I have to mention a book I love. It was assigned reading in one of my college anthropology classes. In recent years I have reread it repeatedly, and gotten much deeper insights from it than I did back in college, probably in large part because I have studied permaculture in the intervening years. That book is The Iban of Sarawak, by Vinson H. Sutlive, who was a professor of anthropology at William & Mary when I was there (though the class where we were assigned the book was taught by a different professor).

One of the ideas from Sutlive’s book that stuck with me is how the land-use would be dictated by external demand, more than by the indigenous people’s immediate nutritional needs. So, for example, if demand for rice went up, banana plantations would get cleared to make rice fields. And vice versa, if demand for bananas went up, they’d clear the rice fields to plant more banana trees. An Iban man quoted in the book (I’m speaking from memory, as I no longer have this book in my possession) talked about “rice eating bananas, or bananas eating rice.” The Goodreads page linked above offers links to stores and libraries where you can get the book. By the way, I have to buy another copy of this book myself, because I have repeatedly bought (used) copies online, then decided I don’t need to keep the book anymore so I put it in the Little Free Library for others to enjoy, but then I end up missing it and wanting it on my shelves again. The book is valuable not only as a fascinating study of one culture at one point in time (it was written back in the 70s), but also as a relatively slim volume that sums up a number of universal patterns (regarding economics, land use, community, and so on).

The prosperity-to-privation cycle is a vicious cycle affecting us all, connecting us with everyone else in the world, and the only way I see out of it is if those of us who have the awareness and economic wherewithal to do so, put our foot down and say, “Enough. The crazy stops here!” And this resolution has to be on multiple levels. Not just with our wallets but with our communication to retailers, government.  

For the individual, it’s not a simple path, and requires an unyielding willingness to learn new information and adjust one’s habits. But if you’re here reading a blog called DEEP GREEN, you’re already the kind of person who’s not finding it easy to rest with the status quo we’ve created. And the extra effort offers the prize of knowing we are helping to create a better world for all. At the end of the day, the thing that really keeps us awake at night, more than our own immediate problems, is the suffering we are unintentionally causing others. 

So, immediate solutions: If you can afford it, buy as much of your food local and organic, from smaller farms, as possible. And consciously limit “faraway exotic” items to the status of sparingly-consumed treats, which you are willing to pay more for. Also if you can afford it, donate to a food bank in your area, to help that mother who struggles to feed her family even when meat is available at the insanely cheap price of $2.99 a pound, never mind when it’s not.

And if you cannot afford to do these things, please don’t beat yourself up. You are not alone. My best suggestion to you right now is that you act immediately to boost your economic circumstances by pruning overhead costs that are sucking your money, time, and other resources without adding value to your life. I can help you with this, not only via my book Deep Green (which is affordably priced for the value it offers, and which includes a free one-on-one session by phone or Zoom), but also via this blog, which is free to all. (The advantage of my book is that–unlike my wild-and-woolly blog with its many tangents and tendrils–the book is an organized, quick-start guide, ruthlessly and lovingly condensed into a slim hundred pages or so.)

The insider secret of DEEP GREEN is this: The path of low-footprint living and the path of conscious household thrift are overlapping. If you’ve ever had the idea that being an environmentalist is idealistic, expensive, or impractical, now is your chance to shake that misconception once and for all. Your wallet and the planet will thank you.

Further Reading:

“How To Eat Animals and Respect Them Too” (interview with Joel Salatin by Madeline Ostrander in Yes magazine). It is possible to raise animals for meat (including beef cattle) in a manner that is not only sustainable, but actually regenerative; restorative to the soil and ecosystems. If you are interested in this topic, other terms to search are Allan Savory; Holistic Range Management.

“How To Green the World’s Deserts and Reverse Climate Change.” Allan Savory (holistic range management) video on YouTube.

Haven’t read this yet; bookmarking for later. “Invasive Species Turned into Sustainable Delicacies” (Claralyse Palmer;