Brazil’s other edible seeds will surprise you

There is a tremendous diversity of food in South America, and in particular, Brazil. One can find a wide variety of edible seeds of all sorts growing all over the country. In fact, two of them are popular all over the world! Can you guess?

  • Brazil nuts

Ok, this is a given, but these nuts are actually native to a big part of South America. Funnily enough, in Brazil they are not called “Brazil” but “Pará” nuts, a Northern Brazilian state which was once the world’s largest producer of them. Currently, Bolivia is the largest producer of Brazil nuts.

Brazil Nut Pod

Brazil nut fruits

The species is actually a relative of cranberries and blueberries and can live up to 500 years. The fruits are hard and resemble a coconut, with 8 to 24 seeds inside.

It was first made popular by the English in the 1700s, and then by Americans in the early 1900s. There are very few farms of it; the seeds are mostly wildcrafted, as the trees depend on native pollinators, which in turn can only be found in the Amazon rainforest.

In fact, the tree co-evolved with a number of different pollinator insects for its flowers, and a few mammals for the spreading of its seeds, such as the agouti and certain monkeys.

Agouti-opening-Brazil-nut-fruit

Agouti opening Brazil Nut fruit through its “back” hole

As baru trees, brazil nut trees are threatened by deforestation. The tree cannot be easily cultivated and requires proximity to a pristine rainforest to be pollinated, otherwise it will not bear fruits.

The extraction of Brazil nuts protects the Amazon rainforest biodiversity by generating revenue for a number of local foraging communities, which encourages the preservation of their environment.

  • Cashew nuts

This might come as a shock to most people, as they are incredibly popular in India. Although related to the mango tree, did you know this species originated in Northeastern Brazil?

The Portuguese, in the 1500s, went to Brazil and eventually brought cashew seeds to former colonies Goa and Mozambique. Cashew trees were grown to control coastal erosion, and the story goes that in India wild elephants took a liking for the fruits, and spread their seeds over a large territory.

It was only in the 1800s that the first plantations were established, and nowadays India and Côte d’Ivoire are the largest global exporters of cashew nuts. Together they hold a staggering 46% of the world’s production.

Native cashew varieties can still be found in the Brazilian Cerrado, along with baru trees and many other wild species adapted to the dry climate.

cajuzinhocerrado

Wild cashews growing in the Cerrado

Curious fact: several cultures around the world are not familiar with the cashew “apple”, which has a sweet, astringent flavour and can be eaten when ripe, or used in jellies, juices and beverages.

Sources:

Direto da Amazônia, livro revela como a castanha-do-pará ganhou o mundo. Jornal da USP, 2017. 

PANDA, H. The Complete Book on Cashew (Cultivation, Processing & By-Products). 2013.

DENKE, J. S. The Carrot Purple and Other Curious Stories of the Food We Eat. 2015.

5 Reasons Baru Seeds Are Completely Unknown

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Baru seeds are a really new thing in North America and nobody has ever heard of them until now.

How come? And if they’re so special, shouldn’t they be all over the place?

It is not simple to answer that. Let’s go through some points:

  • Baru seeds come from literally the middle of nowhere, and most locals only started paying serious attention to them some 15 years ago. Even though the seeds have had several scientific articles published on them all over the world since the 80’s, these resources were not easily available not even in Academia, as access to the internet was restrained to large urban areas.
  • It’s especially easy to ignore the baru fruits. They blend in perfectly with their environment, in a place where other much more attractive fruits grow, such as pequi, mangaba, and wild cashews. The seeds are hard to extract, and unattractive next to those foods. Why bother?

 

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Some baru fruits on the ground being discrete.

 

  • Until 15 years ago there was barely any infrastructure in the Cerrado to process and export them. Only now there are proper roads to transport them, farms producing their very first crops, and machinery to optimize their extraction.
  • Mainstream media wasn’t aware of them at all. Baru seeds were largely ignored by the major Brazilian population until some 7 years ago. Increased science research funding circa 2011, along with a larger parcel of the population attending higher education, brought to light much of the seeds’ potential in many universities. Media interest grew by leaps and bounds, as nutritionists and other health professionals started prescribing the seeds as a tool for weight and cholesterol control.
  • They come from an underdeveloped country with many economic, political and social issues. This combination sabotages any natural wealth whenever possible. There are dozens of other nutrient-dense “superfoods” in the Cerrado growing in the wild, with simply no incentives to be studied or even protected from deforestation.

That’s why baru seeds haven’t been a thing yet. They were just ignored this whole time, for many reasons. A buried gemstone, waiting to be uncovered – hopefully in time to save the Cerrado.

The Deforestation of the Cerrado

Were you aware? The heart of South American biomes is at risk.

The Cerrado is one of the oldest ecosystems in the world, a savanna far richer than its African counterpart, with a massive area half the size of Europe just below the Amazon rainforest. It holds the springs to three of the major rivers in South America and holds the second largest freshwater reservoir in the world.

Its vegetation forms an “inverted forest” – trees with deep underground roots, which allow for the rainfall coming from the Amazon forest to enter the ground, be held within the environment, and feed the water tables, which in turn feed rivers that will flow to the Amazon. Without the trees, rainfall cannot be returned to those rivers, as it erodes and compacts the soil, evaporating fast, and preventing the regular Amazon rain cycle coming to and fro the Cerrado. The only thing holding this water in place is the remaining Cerrado vegetation, currently at only a fifth of its original area.

Less than a tenth of it is protected, and for the last 15 years, it has been deforested 5 times faster than the Amazon. This is being documented by a number of international articles in Nature magazine, The NY Times, The Washington Post, institutions such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the WWF, Mighty Earth, and countless other respectable sources. This deforestation is already showing its ugly head in Midwestern Brazil, with over a thousand cities facing major water shortage issues, all of them dependent on the Cerrado’s water resources.

If it collapses, the Amazon rainforest collapses in less than 30 years. If the Amazon collapses, we are in serious trouble regarding climate change.

#savethecerrado

Footage: Mighty Earth
Music: Aurora – Life on Mars (Bowie)

3 Ways Baru Seeds Impact The World Positively

Did you know baru seeds are much more than a snack? Their trees are an important part of a biome connected to the whole of South America and the world. These are ways baru seeds are beneficial to everyone:

    1. Socially
      The foraging of baru seeds generates revenue to local communities in the Brazilian savannah and creates a sustainable industry within Mid-western Brazil, a poor region of a country with a huge wealth gap. It takes power away from large agribusiness corporations as it creates self-employed families and co-ops, stimulating the local economy and also sharing revenue a lot more evenly than the agribusiness.

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      Wild baru seeds are wildcrafted and handpicked individually, employing hundreds of communities and discouraging deforestation as it generates income.

    2. The Amazon
      Baru seeds bring awareness to a little-known fact: the Cerrado is deeply connected with the Amazon, especially regarding their shared water cycle. Baru trees, as other Cerrado deep-rooted species, allow rainfall to enter the water tables, which eventually form major rivers in South America that feed the Amazon rainforest.  Thus, trees such as baru actively hinder deforestation in the Cerrado and passively in the Amazon rainforest by allowing its massive rainfall to be returned.

      watercycle

      Water clouds come from the Atlantic Ocean (1) and enter the Amazon rainforest becoming flying rivers (2), heading south (3) towards Midwestern Brazil (4). This rainfall penetrates the soil through deep-rooted vegetation and integrates water tables that feed rivers such as the Tocantins, Araguaia, and Xingu (5), returning to the rainforest.

    3. Climate Change
      As published in several magazine articles, such as in Brazil: Urgent action on Cerrado extinctions: “(…)our findings show that a severe extinction episode is unfolding in the Cerrado, with plant extinctions projected to be an order of magnitude higher than all global recorded plant extinctions so far — yet in our view, this catastrophe can be avoided(..)”. The Cerrado is a huge water reservoir, and the most biodiverse savanna in the world, home to an enormous variety of plants and animals. However, unlike the Amazon rainforest, the Cerrado is barely protected by laws, has zero international awareness and was mostly deforested, giving way to agribusiness interests. With only a quarter of its original vegetation left and an imminent water crisis, there are several credible sources noting the huge threat the collapse of the Cerrado could pose to the global environment and economy, with optimist scenarios predicting a collapse of the Cerrado, and by proxy the Amazon, by 2050 – we are literally on the verge of living a Black Mirror episode.

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      The Araguaia River saw in October 2017 the worst drought in its recorded history. Depicted, stranded alligators starve in the mud. Source: Globo Tocantins.

Resources:
Agribusiness seizes Brazilian power. New Internationalist, 1 Oct 2017.
Agronegócio acelera a devastação do Cerrado. 3 March 2017. Caritas Brasileira.
Anticipated changes to environmental law may jeopardize Brazilian natural resources. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 15. 65-66. 10.1002/fee.1461.
Brazil’s Cerrado forests won’t be saved by corporate pledges on deforestation. 8 December 2017, The Conversation.
Brazil’s drought: Protect biodiversity. Science Magazine, 27 Mar 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6229, pp. 1427-1428.
Brazil’s indigenous people outraged as agency targeted in conservative-led cuts. The Guardian, 10 July 2017.
Brazil: Urgent action on Cerrado extinctions. Nature 540, 199, 08 December 2016.
Brazil’s Water Cycle: Effects of Deforestation on the Water Supply. The Nature Conservancy.
Com metade da área devastada, cerrado pode desaparecer ainda neste século. 19 Nov 2017, Correio Braziliense.
Como as raízes do Cerrado levam água a torneiras de todas as regiões do Brasil. BBC Brazil, 27 March 2017.
Devastação do cerrado gera desequilíbrio ambiental. Correio Braziliense, November 2017.
Dry land, full rivers. October 2009, FAPESP.
Hard times for the Brazilian environment. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, 1213 (2017).
Moment of truth for the Cerrado hotspot. Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, 0099 (2017) | DOI: 10.1038/s41559-017-0099.
Soybean cultivation as a threat to the environment in Brazil. Environmental Conservation 28 (1): 23–38, 10 Oct 2000.
Fred Pearce. The Land Grabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns the Earth. Beacon Press, May 29, 2012 – Social Science – 286 pages.
Policies mix can avoid extinctions of historic proportions projected for the Cerrado, shows a study coordinated by Brazilians, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. CSRIO, 23 March 2017.