Ever wondered where cashew nuts come from? I hadn’t seen them in the wild until I was traversing the island of Koh Chang in Thailand, sitting on the back of a motorcycle. It was the smell rather than the sight that drew my attention. Pungent, rotting, red, mushy fruit, lying underneath sweeping cashew tree branches. Who would have thought that this buttery nut, starring in Thai dishes such as ‘chicken cashew nut’ and supercharged with vitamins, antioxidants and minerals, would grow as a single nut under a much larger fruit? When we eat cashews they have been through a multi-stage process to extract the nut from their hard outer shell, which I didn’t learn more about several weeks later during my travels to Myanmar.
Myanmar grows cashews in several states, exporting them elsewhere in the region to countries such as China, Malaysia and India. In Dawei I visited a cashew factory, where the nuts are manually processed for sale. First they are boiled in large cauldrons to soften the shells, then they lie in the sun to dry before being cracked open one-by-one and then graded for sale (whole vs broken). Being the token westerner watching adolescent girls crack nut after nut in a heat-filled room was an interesting and awkward experience for me. Wages are calculated by volume rather than time, so speed is of the essence and they work long hours. Sadness lingered in the air, contrasting the unceasing smiles I found in most places in Myanmar. Finding the monotony of the work disconcerting, I briefly conversed with some of the workers before making a swift exit, without taking any tourist snaps (sorry).
Ok, in the realms of tedious, repetitive work, cracking cashew nuts may better than some other jobs. This story is not unique, as many people around the world are similarly paid a pittance to undertake mind-numbing tasks. So what is my issue with this situation? That people have to do boring low paid work to survive? That we never see the faces behind the producers of our food? That low cost labour is exploited to make profits and satisfy export markets? Money aside, is cracking cashew nuts for hours on end really that different from staring at a computer screen all day?
If we all stopped eating cashew nuts today, would that solve anything? Would it improve the lives of these workers? Probably not. I’m sharing this story as I think it is important to know where our food comes from. To recognise that many neatly packaged foods we buy from the supermarket have faces behind them, hidden social (and environmental) costs. I think we should try and be mindful of what we eat, where it is sourced from, and the quality of the conditions and the environment under which it is produced. In our complex and globalised food system, this is often nigh impossible though! Until we are able to equally value people, nature and profits, we will continue to exploit people in order to produce goods as cheap as possible, be it t-shirts from Bangladesh, tinned fish from Thailand or cashew nuts from Myanmar.