The Brazil Nut: A coveted holiday treat, a nutritious superfood or a canary in the mine of climate change?

By Amanda Cooper


How often do you consider where your food comes from? Supermarkets throughout the Western world are filled with a diverse and abundant range of food products by an equally diverse global network of suppliers. Climate change is affecting food producing regions across the world in different ways, but all areas are experiencing more frequent extreme weather events. This is threatening the food products most of us seek out on demand daily. Thus, changes to the climate anywhere in the world will impact food supplies everywhere in the world.

Photo copyright of Amanda Cooper.

The impacts of one extreme weather event recently “hit home” when I encountered a message on an Eat Natural cereal bar. The message stated ‘Sadly, due to a failed harvest and worldwide shortage, we are temporarily unable to use Brazils in this recipe’. The label directs consumers to their website to learn more about the global shortage. I decided to do just that.

Why Do We Care About Brazil Nuts?

Brazil nuts have joined the ranks of the “superfood” and have become increasingly popular with health-conscious people. Brazil nuts have beneficial properties as a rich source of selenium (good for skin, hair and thyroid function), antioxidants (good for immune health and brain cells) and monounsaturated fats (the “Good” Fats). Consumption of a single serving of Brazil nuts has been found to improve the ratio of bad to good cholesterol in the blood stream1. Brazil nuts are consumed throughout the US and Europe, but the UK is the largest consumer. This is likely due both to their health benefits and the Brazil nut’s traditional role as a favoured holiday treat.

Photo copyright Marco Simola/CIFOR used under a CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence from Flickr.

The Problem for Brazil Nuts

In 2016, an extreme weather event occurred in the Amazon Basin, caused by an El Niño. El Niño, a climate event that changes weather patterns around the world, regularly occurs every 7-10 years. In the Amazon rainforest, El Niño reduces rainfall, causing a temporary drought in the forest that affected the Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa) population.

Brazil nuts are no small challenge to produce. Brazil nut trees grow in the western Amazonian regions of Bolivia, Brazil and Peru. The trees need natural forest habitat to thrive and can’t be grown in plantations. Foragers travel to remote areas of rainforest to collect the nuts during a lengthy harvest season from December to May. Brazil nut trees must grow for 12 years to produce fruit and fruit take over a year to ripen2. However, once trees mature, they can produce fruit for centuries. This region of the Amazon provides the entire global supply of Brazil nuts. Brazil nuts are a profitable, non-timber resource for local communities when the forests they come from are kept healthy.

Distribution of Brazil Nut trees across South America
Photo copyright Evert Thomas used with permission.

During an El Niño event, Brazil nut trees drop their fruit before the seeds have matured, reducing over-all nut production. The 2015-2016 El Niño event was the strongest event for 30 years. Records show that this event produced a more severe drought compared to strong El Niño events in 1982-1983 and 1997-1998. Deforestation and increased atmospheric CO2 is likely to have caused this extreme drought.

After this El Niño event, The International Nut and Dried Fruit Council Statistical Yearbook 2017/2018 reported an almost two-thirds reduction in nut production from the previous year. Worryingly, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and these extreme events will increase the frequency of droughts caused by El Niño in the Amazon.

Brazil Nut Production dropped dramatically after the 2016 El Niño event.
Graph created by Amanda Cooper using data from the International Nut and Dried Fruit Council Nuts and Dried Fruits Statistical Yearbook 2017/183.

So, What is the Big Deal?

Brazil nut production is returning to normal for 2018-2019, but are other tropical tree-based crops, such as Chocolate and Coffee, challenged by a changing climate?  Well, one study found that the 2015-2016 drought significantly decreased the yield of cocoa in the Bahia region of Brazil4. Additionally, they found that more cocoa trees suffered from disease because of the drought, potentially decreasing production in future years. Coffee growing regions, which span the tropics, have also experienced more frequent droughts due to climate change, though the coffee industry is proactively trying to manage this risk through intensive agricultural management.

While there is some uncertainty about the how the climate will change in the long-term, extreme weather events are already occurring more frequently, impacting on food-producing regions that supply the entire world. As with the Brazil nut, other global food supply shortages are likely to occur, which is the focus of ongoing research. In the years to come, challenges in food production will be an issue the world will have address. For me, it will have started with the missing Brazil nuts.

References

  1. Brazil nuts Improvement of Lipid Levels: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3693158/
  2. Thomas E, Alcázar Caicedo C, Loo J, Kindt R. The distribution of the Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa) through time: from range contraction in glacial refugia, over human-mediated expansion, to anthropogenic climate change. Bol do Mus Para Emílio Goeldi Ciências Nat. 2014;9: 267–291.
  3. International Nut and Dried Fruit Council (INC) Nuts and Dried Fruits Statistical Yearbook 2017/2018
  4. Gateau-Rey L, Tanner EVJ, Rapidel B, Marelli J-P, Royaert S (2018) Climate change could threaten cocoa production: Effects of 2015-16 El Niño-related drought on cocoa agroforests in Bahia, Brazil. PLoS ONE 13(7): e0200454.

Further Reading

  1. Eat Natural Bad news for Brazil lovers/
  2. BBC Good Food The health benefits of Brazil nuts
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