The absurdity of the global cashew trade

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Fair Trade

Over 90% of cashew nuts from West Africa are transported to Asia for processing instead of doing so locally and sending them directly to the customers. Though this may make sense economically, it is highly problematic in many other ways!

Cashew processing in Benin
  • The nuts are transported to Asia with their shells – five times the weight of the edible kernel – before they are shelled and delivered to customers in Europe or the USA. The kernels are therefore responsible for 108,000 km of travel-related emissions instead of the 8,000 km between West Africa and Europe.
  • Value creation, jobs and know-how leave the producing country along with the raw nuts, even though they would make an important contribution there.
  • Dozens of development aid projects aimed at promoting cashew processing in West Africa have gone bankrupt, causing tens of thousands of jobs to be lost or not created in the first place.

Why is this absurdity taking place?

It is a combination of efficiency, customs protection and industrial promotion that makes the cost of processing in Asia rather attractive. Food trading is extremely price sensitive, so if processing in Asia saves only a few cents per kilogram, the buyers are on board – regardless of the social and ecological consequences in the producing countries and despite the long transport route of the raw nuts.

One could assume that it is different with nuts that are certified organic and fair trade. It seems like a mockery that the largest supplier of certified organic and fair trade nuts – the Singaporean food wholesaler Olam – is also the largest exporter of raw nuts from West Africa. The group has annual sales of USD 20 billion yet still has a foothold on the organic and fair-trade niche.

Labels don’t say anything about the route the goods have travelled before they reach us. They also don’t mention whether a company will accept job losses in West Africa for its profits, or whether buyers strategically change suppliers to decrease prices and effectively destabilise the retail chain by driving all its players into a ruinous price war. Labels are an important minimum standard, but they are all too often interpreted as a maximum standard.

Fortunately, there are more and more companies recognising that direct, long-term and transparent retail chains are important and, above all, more sustainable than labels. That’s why here at gebana, we continue to advocate for supply chains from farmers directly to consumers. True to the motto of gebana founder Ursula Brunner: "We’ll just do it ourselves.”

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