A Brazil nut is not a nut. It might not be from Brazil, either. In fact, there are a lot of products in your cupboard that come from surprising places. In recent years, several second- and third-tier exporters have surpassed former centers of production, resulting in a melting pot of food origins that’s constantly changing. Here’s where some of your food (and drugs) comes from these days, and why:
1. The more the beef, the fewer the nuts
The non-nut (actually more closely related to a blueberry) in question was once grown by a small monopoly in Brazil, but for many years Bolivia has actually led production. Half the world’s Brazil nuts come from Bolivia, with another 40% or so hailing from Brazil and the other 10% from Peru.
Unlike most food crops, the Brazil nut can’t be farmed in a traditional sense. It grows on trees in the rainforest, since the complex ecological needs of the tree are hard to reproduce on cultivated land. That’s why the Brazil nut’s success relies on land conservation.
Land is an asset Brazil lacks, largely due to its top export: beef. Brazil is second only to the United States in beef exports, and the country’s endless herds of cattle demand a lot of space, which has decimated the country’s rainforest (nearly 20% of the original forest so far). Bolivia, meanwhile, subsidizes growers of Brazil nuts, both to discourage them from growing coca leaves instead, and to prevent deforestation. Brazil’s industry was long monopolized by a single family, whose refusal to pay its farmers more pushed those workers into the much more lucrative cattle industry.
2. The top producer isn’t always the top exporter
When people say they wouldn’t give something up for “all the tea in China,” that’s a pretty safe bet, because all the tea in China doesn’t leave China. The country produces the most tea in the world by far, but lags far behind countries like Sri Lanka and Kenya in exports. Kenya grew 398.5 million kg (878.5 million lbs) of tea in 2010—paltry, compared to China’s 1.5 billion kg— but Kenya itself consumed only 18.7 million kg, while China consumed 1.1 billion kg in 2010—which is 26 times the weight of the Titanic.
This is probably because China most likely invented tea, and it’s been a part of the culture for thousands of years. Sri Lanka and Kenya were both introduced to tea plants during the 20th century by Brits looking to establish a new cash crop. So tea drinking in Kenya is mostly the result of it growing really, really well there.
3. Modern methods overtake ancient rivalries
The largest exporter of hummus—an ancient food first recorded in 13th century Cairo and now a staple across the Middle East—is the United States. The brand Sabra, which dominates the US hummus market, is 51% Israeli-owned but was founded in New York and is now located in Virginia—a fact that perplexes Israeli hummus makers. In fact, the company has jumpstarted US chickpea production.
Even so, Israel’s main international rival in hummus production isn’t the US; it’s Lebanon. In 2008, a Lebanese businessman announced that he’d be filing a lawsuit against Israel for marketing hummus and other arguably Arab dishes as its own, and the two countries have had a long-running duel to mix the world’s largest bowl of hummus. Italian pasta makers may do the same if Turkey continues to creep towards its #1 export spot.
4. Drug lords move to safer havens
As of 2011, Colombia was no longer the world’s biggest exporter of cocaine, according to US drugs czar Gil Kerlikowske. Peru and Bolivia accounted for 325 and 265 tonnes (358 and 292 tons) respectively, while Colombia’s share fell to 195 tonnes—compared to 700 tonnes back in 2001.
Why the decline? In a prideful speech last summer, Kerliwoske attributed it to nearly a decade of applying “steady strategic pressure across more than one administration in both the United States and Colombia.” But he failed to mention that Colombia’s cocaine production has merely moved over to neighboring countries.