Get ready for some cashew sticker shock.
The global popularity of the kidney-shaped nut has been growing faster than any other tree nut -- even almonds. Demand jumped 53 percent since 2010 and outpaced production in at least four of the past seven years, industry data show. Now the worst drought in a century for Vietnam, the largest exporter, is raising concern that supplies will be even tighter in a market valued at $5.2 billion.
A lack of rain in the once-fertile Mekong Delta and elsewhere in Vietnam has cut output of its major agricultural exports including rice, black pepper, coffee and seafood. This year’s cashew harvest fell 11 percent, and domestic prices jumped by as much as a third to an all-time high, a growers’ group estimates. That spells trouble for buyers in the U.S., by far the biggest importer.
"There’s been no year like this year,” Nguyen Duc Thanh, chairman of the Vietnam Cashew Association, said during an interview in Ho Chi Minh City. Prices probably will remain high until the next harvest arrives early next year, said Thanh, who has been in the industry for three decades.
While peanuts, which grow underground, are by far the most popular in the nut world, cashews have overtaken walnuts and pistachios in recent years to trail only almonds in the $30 billion market for tree nuts, International Nut and Dried Fruit Council data show. Global cashew consumption in 2014, the most-recent data available, reached a record 716,682 metric tons, up from 469,241 tons in 2010, council data show.
Rising demand, including from China and parts of Europe, helped spark a 70 percent jump in exports over a decade to 503,713 tons in 2014. A quarter of all shipments end up in the U.S., to be eaten as a snack or used to make foods like protein bars and cashew milk. India accounts for almost a third of global consumption and is the second-largest exporter. Ivory Coast ranks No. 2 in production, followed by Vietnam.
Cashew trees usually are grown commercially in places where they can get a lot of rain and warm weather year round, like in southeast Vietnam. But over the past year, an unusual dry spell has left 2 million people in the country with acute water shortages and 18 of 63 provinces were in a state of emergency as of May, according to the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization. Losses in agriculture, a major source of export revenue, may prevent the economy from reaching the government’s growth target this year.
In Binh Phuoc province, home to more than half of Vietnam’s crop, 45-year-old Hoang Thuy Duong says he got just 8 metric tons (17,640 pounds) this year, compared with his usual average of 11 tons. The drought “has stunted many of my cashew trees, keeping them from producing buds, much less flowers,” said Duong, who has spent more than two decades farming 4 hectares (9.9 acres).
The domestic price of raw nuts has jumped to 52,000 dong ($2.33) a kilogram, the highest on record, from 38,000 dong at the start of the year, according to the cashew association.
To be sure, Vietnam’s cashew industry isn’t completely dependent upon local farmers. About two thirds of what it processes was grown somewhere else. West Africa accounted for about 46 percent of the world’s cashews in 2015, and most of those nuts are processed in India, Vietnam or Brazil.
Processing is labor intensive. Trees produce an oval-shaped fruit called the cashew apple with a single nut on the outside. Once harvested, the shells are softened by steam and then cracked by hand. The kernels are dried, peeled and sorted by size and quality. Workers often coat their hands with oil to limit exposure to skin-irritating toxins in the fruit similar to poison ivy.
So, even with a smaller domestic crop, Vietnam’s exports probably will rise this year, partly because of a big jump in production from Ivory Coast. Vietnam may import about 800,000 tons of raw nuts in the shell this year, twice the amount grown locally, according to Thanh of the cashew association. While the country accounts for about 15 percent of global production, it supplied 58 percent of exports in 2014.
The Vietnam Cashew Association estimates exports this year will reach 300,000 tons of processed nuts -- up from 286,000 tons last year -- with 34 percent going to the U.S. In the first 10 months, cashews accounted for $2.33 billion of Vietnam’s $144 billion in exports, reflecting an increase in the volume of processed kernels as well as higher prices, according to the General Statistics Office in Hanoi. The full-year total may reach an all-time high of $2.7 billion, topping last year’s record of $2.4 billion, the association said.
While increased output from Africa may offset lost supply in Vietnam, rising demand is still impacting the market for processed nuts. Export prices on average have jumped 22 percent this year to $7,809 a ton in August, Thanh said, citing data from Vietnam’s Ministry of Industry and Trade. Shipment prices averaged $9,000 per ton on an FOB basis in Ho Chi Minh City on Oct. 30, he said.
“We expect global demand to grow in the low single digits this year against a supply that is expected to be flat or slightly lower than last year,” said Amit Khirbat, a senior vice president at Olam International Ltd., a trading company that is the largest exporter of cashews in Vietnam. “The high prices this year could affect overall demand next year.”