The Story of the Cashew
It’s fair to say that everyone knows what a cashew nut looks like. Whether you enjoy eating them or not, the cashew is instantly recognizable thanks to its crescent shape and buttery flavor.
This humble nut has become a cornerstone of many culinary schools, from Indian and Thai to vegan dairy alternatives, including milk and cheese.
Here at Uprise Foods, we pride ourselves on using only Fairtrade certified cashews in all of our products. To help you understand why this is so important, it’s necessary to tell the story of the cashew nut.
What is a Cashew?
The cashew (anacardium occidentale) is an evergreen tree native to tropical regions, including northern South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. It was “discovered” by the Western world in the 16th century by Portuguese colonists. They transported it to Goa, India, and it spread across Asia and Africa.
The part we eat, known as a cashew nut, is actually the plant’s seed. The important difference is that a traditional nut (walnuts, for example) are encased in a hard shell. A seed, on the other hand, may or may not be encased in a fruit.
Cashew seeds grow from the bottom of the cashew apple, which is technically known as either a pseudofruit or accessory fruit. It’s known as a nut simply because its culinary uses align more closely with nuts than with seeds/fruits.
The trees can grow up to forty-six feet in height, but producers often use dwarf cultivars. These only grow to twenty feet but are comparatively more productive and are easier to harvest. Also, they mature faster and so are more profitable.
Interestingly, cashews are in the same plant family as poison ivy. Anacardiaceae is more widely known as the cashew family, but contains poison ivy, sumac, pistachios, and even mangoes. One of the key defining features of many of these plants is that they secrete urushiol. This is an oil that can irritate skin and lead to rashes, blisters, and itching.
How are Cashews Cultivated?
Cashews are most widely cultivated in Asia, primarily in India and Vietnam, but also in Africa. The Ivory Coast is the world’s largest exporter of cashews, producing nearly 800,000 tonnes each year. Together with India, the two countries produce 39% of the world’s total supply.
New cashew plantations begin with a large number of seedlings. They need to be grown at altitudes of at least 700m above sea level to ensure a consistent temperature and no chance of frost.
The baby trees are grown rapidly in the first three years until they nearly reach their desired harvesting height. At this point, the weaker trees are thinned out to provide enough room for the stronger ones.
Cashew trees flower for around three months, during which time they’re pollinated by insects. The apple takes six to eight weeks to grow, and only ripens in the final two weeks. Once ripe, the nuts and fruit are harvested together, which usually takes place from February to May.
Harvesting and Processing
Harvesting involves picking the fruit and nuts off the ground, as they drop off the tree once ripe. Of course, this process is done by hand and happens roughly once a week during harvest season.
After picking, the nuts and fruit are separated, with the nuts left in the sun for a few days to reduce the moisture content. It drops from around 25% to 9%. Next, farmers test the nut’s maturity by dropping them in water. A mature nut sinks while an immature one floats. Immature cashews aren’t suitable for processing.
Processing cashews is a long and fairly labor intensive process. It begins with cleaning, which obviously involves washing the nuts to remove any dirt, pesticides, or debris.
Next is cooking; cashews are either steamed or roasted. This step requires them to be removed from their shell, which is either done mechanically or by hand with a mallet. As you can imagine, peeling thousands of cashews by hand is a long and arduous process.
Once the shell and the kernel are separated, the shells are sent off to various manufacturers. They’re used in a number of applications, including lubricant and even arms production.
The kernels are then peeled to remove the testa. By this point the cashews pretty much resemble the thing you can buy in supermarkets. Next they’re graded, with broken or overly brown ones falling into the lowest category. These are often used in processes where the look isn’t important, such as cashew milk.
After grading the nuts pass through quality control under strict hygienic conditions. In some situations they’re fumigated at this point too. Finally they’re packaged and shipped off to stores to be sold.
The entire process of growing, harvesting and processing cashews is still pretty much done by hand. This is for a number of reasons, but primarily the work is too fiddly to automate. What’s more, manual processing of this kind is still commonplace in the areas where cashews are grown.
Choosing Fair Trade Cashews
Cashew production is an industry where fair trade is vital for maintaining health and safety standards for all those involved. While non-Fairtrade cashews might be cheaper on the shelf, they come with a much higher cost.
But why exactly is it so important to buy fair trade cashews, such as the ones we use at Uprise Foods?
The first (and perhaps most important) reason is worker wellbeing. As previously mentioned, cashews are in the poison ivy and produce urushiol. It’s secreted by the shells, meaning workers who pick, peel and process cashews can be left with - at best - contact dermatitis. At worst, workers are left with permanent and horrific acid burns and scarring.
Workers (mainly women) get paid as little as $3 a day and aren’t given gloves. Due to their low wages they couldn’t afford them anyway. Many of the workers in places like India and the Ivory Coast spend up to six months of the year with open and weeping sores all over their hands and arms.
Producers working with fair trade initiatives offer workers gloves at the very least. But because they can get in the way of such fiddly work, many use castor oil instead. The caustic urushiol can’t penetrate the barrier created by the oil over the skin, meaning it offers incredibly effective and affordable protection.
Importantly, too, fair trade initiatives ensure workers are paid a suitable wage. While somewhere like India has widely varying laws on minimum wage, fair trade means producers are getting above the regional recommended wage.
Similarly, buying fair trade ensures a fair price. While the idea of paying more for a product might put people off, the important difference is that this extra cost ends up in the farmers’ pockets rather than with the company who simply put the cashews in a packet.
Farmers receive a higher cost per unit, meaning they have a higher quality of life doing what is surprisingly quite a dangerous job. Importantly, too, this money gives farmers the ability to support their children through education to improve their prospects.
What’s more, fair trade offers premiums that help develop local initiatives at the farmer’s level. These can vary massively depending on the area and needs of the people, but range from building schools and supporting infrastructure to providing access to clean drinking water and toilets.
While it’s something of a generalization, many areas that produce cashews are restricted by chronic poverty. To a degree this is influenced by the poor conditions provided by manufacturers, but also by national politics and the wider geopolitical picture.
Fair trade initiatives on their own can’t lift an area out of poverty, but they’re designed to provide tools and infrastructure to begin the journey. Providing something that we all take for granted (a school or toilet, for example) allows workers in these regions to break the cycle of poverty and work towards a better future.
Buying fair trade is vital
Buying fair trade products is vital at every stage of consumption, from customer-facing products to manufacturers. Here at Uprise Foods, we fiercely believe in the power of fair trade and the benefits it brings to those at the other end of the production line.
We learnt more about cashews shortly after beginning our business, and the story shocked us. We imagine it’s done the same for you if you were previously unaware. From that point on, we ensured that all cashews used in our products would be from fair trade sources.
Our NOOCH IT! Grated Cashew Cheese is made solely from fair trade cashews. As a result, it’s been certified by Fairtrade International, a badge we wear with pride and honor.
Of course, we appreciate that this might have a small impact on our prices, but we feel it’s justified. Knowing the dangers of cashew production and processing made us more than happy to pay a higher price to ensure equity for all farmers. Now that you know the story, we’re sure you’ll feel the same too.