Megatrends in the global nut industry

Demand for nuts is set to continue growing strongly worldwide, but this does not mean the industry can grow complacent about improving production efficiencies. This is the opinion of Axel Breuer, CEO of AgroPress, which publishes The Clipper, an international magazine dealing with nut and dried fruit production and processing.

Megatrends in the global nut industry
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Global demand for nut categories such as macadamia continues to grow faster than supply, while hazelnuts and peanut consumption might see another boost due to breakthroughs in allergy treatment.

Worldwide, the macadamia industry is set to double its output within 10 years, a rare event in agriculture. The almond industry has registered frequent new production records, while hazelnut production is spreading to new production areas to meet growing demand.

Oversupply will not be an issue for many years to come, as population growth and consumption trends in favour of plant-based protein are likely to boost demand for nuts.

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There are many reasons for optimism, but some concerns are also on the horizon.

New protein
Nuts should replace meat and dairy cheese at an even faster rate in the coming years. While meat from maggots might not be for everyone, a ‘nut burger’ made with sunflower seeds, cashews, fresh herbs and spices is a tasty and culturally acceptable meat replacement.

Modern consumers adapt to new diets and crops they have never heard of before in a very short time. And once they start enjoying alternative tastes that work well in a burger or on a barbecue, they will no longer ask for the ‘real deal’.

Cheese made from nuts has nearly unlimited potential. The global cheese market is worth US$60 billion [about R906 billion], and just a 1% market share would be a phenomenal boost for the nut industry.

The technical process of making cheese from nuts appears to have been perfected and ready for big industrial production. Once the consumer has adapted to the slightly different flavours, there will be no going back.

Our suggestion for the industry is to invest heavily in promoting nut alternatives to cheese and meat, and try to avoid the mistakes that have slowed the ‘almond milk’ boom.

Climate and sustainability
Agriculture is one of the few sectors of human culture where people think beyond elections, and even generations.

The nut industry is well placed to serve as an example for good practice in agriculture, as the margins are high, and the industry has the means to invest in sustainability, at least in certain areas. However, avoiding fossil fuels in farming is easier said than done.

There are currently no real alternatives to fossil-fuelled farm machinery; this has to change and more incentives are needed to bring about a switch, as the pressure on the sector will grow exponentially in the coming years.

It is no secret that water efficiency in orchards across the globe has plenty of room for improvement.

Almond growers in the Murray-Darling basin in Australia have taken the unprecedented step of calling for a moratorium on the development of new plantations, as well as a stocktake amid fears that there may not be enough water for irrigation during summer months.

Since 2014, water entitlements in Australia can be bought and sold, or leased separately from land, which has turned out to be a catastrophic policy. For now, it is a war between farmers, but consumers are taking notice.

Concerns about the availability and quality of water are growing in that country as well as in South Africa, and even in countries such as Chile, Peru and Argentina, where water supply once seemed endless. Production will have to become more efficient. New technology such as improved sensors, drones, irrigation methods and scheduling can be used to substantially improve water efficiency.

Not all regions with the right temperature and humidity are suitable for growing nuts, as the strain on the environment is too great.

In South Africa, a megatrend in the coming years will be based on a simple question: can we continue to produce nuts in our region?

South African researcher Peter Johnston has made it very clear that this question will come up in various places, and the answer for many traditional growing regions might be negative.

The good news is that resources and knowledge could be used to develop almond orchards in many other parts of the world. It is already happening in countries such as Georgia and we will see a big push of perennial crops in northern countries in the future.

Reducing wastage
It took me a while to understand that the process of wasting food starts much earlier than throwing leftovers away after dinner. Estimated ‘losses’ during agricultural production can reach between 30% and 80%, depending on the crop and region.

The amount of ‘waste’ in the production of certain nuts is remarkable. Some nut varieties have large protective hulls and shells; almond field weight yields 13% debris, 50% hulls, 14% shells and 23% clean almond meat and pieces.

Three-quarters of almond production do not end up as high-value food. While almond hulls and shells and cashew apples are very valuable, their applications have not yet been adequate.

Everything that is grown, processed and transported that is not part of the final product leaves a large negative footprint. In future, it will be essential for the nut industry to make the best possible use of the by-products of food production.

As scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have shown, torrefied almond shells can be turned into heavy-duty plastic. This could lead to additional income for growers and a far smaller footprint, more than doubling the efficiency of almond production.

For the post-harvest industry, this means that sorting will essentially extend to all nut by-products such as hulls and shells, as the ingredients for producing plastic raw materials have to be ‘clean’.

Cashew nuts are the smaller by-product of a much larger fruit, the ‘cashew apple’, something that most consumers in developed countries have never heard of.

The cashew industry is likely to see an explosion in cashew juice consumption in the near future, as the juice of the fruit is five times richer in vitamin C than citrus and four times richer than sweet orange, and its bitter and sour taste is perfectly in line with recent taste trends.

Cashew apple juice is also considered an excellent remedy for sore throats and chronic dysentery. Efficiency and the environmental footprint will improve largely by turning the entire cashew product into a high-value food item.

Biodiversity
Monocultures such as almond plantations, are subjected to considerable pesticide use, and this is harming bee populations worldwide.

If the output of all the honey bees were expressed as a monetary value, it would total €153 billion [about R2,57 trillion] per year. This might be one field where high-tech will not solve the problem.

Some people dream of using small robotic drones for pollination, while others are trying to come up with mechanical solutions for pollination. Almond growers have turned to self-pollinating tree varieties such as Independence. But the truth is that pollination by bees leads to better quality, and therefore the industry needs to help save the bees.

After more than 14 000 years of existence, agriculture is the peaceful driver of innovation for humanity.

The nut and dried fruit sectors are among the most exciting in terms of technological innovation.

Sorting machines are capable of analysing thousands of nuts per minute while they are falling, and farmers use a smartphone to switch on their irrigation system and the check the progress of drones and weeding robots in their orchards. The industry has the right mindset and tools to tackle future challenges.

The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.

This is a guest article published by Tomra Food, which designs and manufactures sensor-based sorting machines and integrated post-harvest solutions for the food industry. Visit tomra.com/en/sorting/food.

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