Cashew Nuts: A Toxic Industry

05 Mar 2020

As has been discussed both here and elsewhere at length, there’s a hidden world of environmental destruction and human misery behind some of the most in vogue food products in the Global North, from avocados to almonds. Demand for the latter has exploded in recent years, driven by partly a rise in lactose intolerance, healthier dietary habits, and also, increasingly, by veganism[1].

The same trends have also led to a massive rise in demand[2] for cashew nuts (anacardium occidentale), and the internet is awash with blog posts that praise them for their health benefits. What you notice in these articles is an almost total lack of discussion on the production of cashew nuts—and there is nothing particularly unusual in this mystification of our foods’ origins—though one blog does come close to touching upon an aspect of cashews that should make you think twice before buying them again:

“Cashews themselves aren’t toxic, but they are surrounded by a shell that consists of the toxic oil urushiol… Coming into contact with urushiol can cause itching, blisters, and skin rashes. Because raw cashews are processed in such a careful and meticulous way, it’s rare that someone will accidentally consume a contaminated nut.”


Photo credit Emily Clark for the Daily Mail

Though the potential risks involved in cashew production are mentioned, once again the focus is squarely on the possibility of danger (or lack thereof) to the consumer, and the people who pick these toxic nuts are obscured. Why? Perhaps because if we knew what pain and misery lies behind our healthy snacks, we might not feel quite as content eating them.

Over half[3] of the world’s cashew new production is concentrated in just three countries: Vietnam, India, and the Ivory Coast. The industry in each country, however, is marked by dangerous conditions and poverty-line wages for workers.

In Vietnam, reports going back as far as 2011 from Human Rights Watch and reported by Time suggest that drug addicts in forced-labor ‘rehabilitation’ camps are engaged in the production and processing, and “those who refuse to work are beaten with truncheons, given electric shocks, locked in isolation, deprived of food and water, and obliged to work even longer hours”. Why might they refuse to work? Because the anacardic acid present in the fruit that cashew nuts grow from is caustic, and burns the skin. All this for “a few dollars a month”—all to ensure the lowest export prices possible to supermarkets in the West.


Photo credit Emily Clark for the Daily Mail

In India meanwhile, the Daily Mail reported last year how,

“Burns are a fact of life for up to 500,000 workers in India’s cashew industry, nearly all women. They are employed without contracts, with no guarantee of steady income, no pension or holiday pay. Many don’t even get gloves, and if they did, they probably couldn’t afford to wear them. Gloves would slow their shelling down, and they are paid by the kilo.”

All this for less than €3 a day. Once again, the true price of cheap imported products in Western supermarkets is paid elsewhere, and dearly, by workers in the Global South. The global economic crisis of the last 12 years has pushed prices down even further.


Photo credit Emily Clark for the Daily Mail

The Ivory Coast has witnessed an incredible rise in cashew nut production over the same period of time: up from 280,000 tons a year in 2007 to 761,000 tons in 2018, according to Asoko Insight. Most of these nuts are exported raw to India and Vietnam for processing, so we may be tempted to think that at least workers here are spared the burns and skin boils in the processing countries.

But the story is not so simple: a significant fall in global prices has seen these same importers withdraw from contracts, with consequent impact on the hundreds of thousands of people who make a living growing cashew nuts in the Ivory Coast. As a result, the country is incentivizing the local processing of the nuts, and we can easily imagine what sort of conditions and wages await the workers employed in this growing industry.

To further emphasize the effects of globalization, how about a little quiz—which of three countries we’ve talked about is the cashew nut native to? Answer: none of the above! In fact, the cashew is native to the tropics of the Americas, from Central America and the Caribbean to northeastern Brazil. Indeed, the word cashew derives from the Tupian languages of South America, where acajú means “nut that reproduces”. And while global product focuses on the nut, the fruit it grows from is still used to make a wide variety of foods and drinks in Brazil. As you might expect, there is biodiversity in the cashew family in its native land, too, with other species such as anacardium humile still grown and eaten across the Cerrado region of Brazil: a product which has boarded the Ark of Taste.


Photo credit Emily Clark for the Daily Mail

There is no easy way around the problem in the West, if we want to eat cashews and avoid value chains built on the back of human misery, we’ve very few options. That is the result of cheap, globalized agriculture. But if we’re eating cashews simply because we consider them healthy, or worse still, drinking cashew ‘milk’ as an ethical alternative to cow’s milk, it’s time to stop and think again. There’s nothing wrong with the product in and of itself, and we’re not accusing consumers in the West of creating or supporting this situation deliberately, but we should take this as yet more evidence of the true price we pay for the cheap goods which our industrial food system provides. Elsewhere, far from our view, someone else is often paying the cost with their health, their life.

Meanwhile, there are other dried fruits which are just as healthy, travel shorter distances to arrive in our shops and with less exploitation (hazelnuts and almonds are both grown abundantly in Europe), while oat milk is the least environmentally- and socially-problematic of the vegan milk alternatives.


[1] In the UK, for instance, research suggests the number of vegans quadrupled in the five years from 2014 to 2019, while ten times more people took part in Veganuary in 2020 than did in 2016. A similar trend is evident in North America and Northern Europe.

[2] Total worldwide consumption increased by around a third, from 600 to 800 thousand metric tons, in the four years from 2012 to 2016. Source: Statista.

[3] According to FAOSTAT figures reported by factfish, in 2017 world total production stood at 3,971,046 tons, of which Vietnam (863,060 tons), India (745,000 tons) and Ivory Coast (711,000) account for 58.3%.

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