Brazil’s other edible seeds

There is a tremendous diversity of food in South America, and in particular, Brazil. One can find a wide variety of edible seeds and nuts 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. How do you call Brazil nuts in Brazil? “Pará” nuts, a Northern Brazilian state which was once the world’s largest producer of them. However, Bolivia took over as the largest producer of Brazil nuts decades ago.

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. In contrast to their popularity, there are very few farms of  Brazil nuts; they 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

Deforestation threatens Brazil nut trees, just like baru trees. This is because the Brazil nut 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. 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. To control coastal erosion, they planted cashew trees. The story goes that in India wild elephants took a liking for the fruits. This, in turn, spread cashew seeds over a large territory, making the tree widespread in the country.

However, the first plantations were established only in the 1800s, and nowadays India and Côte d’Ivoire are the largest global exporters of cashew nuts, with a staggering 46% of the world’s production.

Native cashew varieties still inhabit 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”. It has a sweet, astringent flavour and can be eaten casually, or used in jellies, juices and beverages. Also, it is related to the mango tree!

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.

The Foraging Of Baru Seeds Is Hard

The foraging of baru seeds is very labor intensive. In this video, we see how the fruits are picked from the wild and cracked open for the seeds in Midwestern Brazil.

Some baru fruits have their pulp eaten by wildlife or cattle. Foragers have to be quick and pick them up before the rainy season. These “half-eaten” fruits will still protect the seed hermetically for up to two years under dry conditions.

Check it out!

The Importance of the Cerrado – Part 1

Hey everyone! Today we’re going to talk about the importance of the Cerrado, and by extent, baru trees.

Some folks approach us during demos ignoring this huge savanna we have in Brazil, and sometimes even suspicious of baru trees! People presume baru is either a GMO, since nobody’s ever heard of it in North America, or its processing demands a lot of water, like almonds do. That’s perfectly fine since there is not a lot of material in English out there about it, but it’s time we shed some light on the important relation of baru, water and the Cerrado.

cerrado2Let’s start with the basics. The Cerrado is this massive South American biome, second only to the Amazon rainforest in size, and the most biodiverse savanna in the world. That’s right, more diverse than the African savanna. It originally spread for over 2 million square km, mainly in Brazil, with small parts in Bolivia and Paraguay – roughly half the size of Europe overall.

What we call “Cerrado” is actually a mesh of four different vegetations: forest savanna, wooded savanna, park savanna and gramineous-woody savanna. Baru trees and other deep-rooted wild species grow in all of these, which feed and harbor the fauna, protect the soil against erosion and allow for rain to enter the soil.

Thus the Cerrado is an important receiver, keeper, and disperser of water to very important watersheds in the continent, namely the Amazon, Prata and São Francisco Basins. It acts like a sponge through an “inverted forest” of deep roots. This allows the savanna to stay alive by slowly releasing water until the rain season comes back, as it gets extremely dry on the surface during the southern hemisphere winter.

You can see the extent of the Cerrado in Brazil (in brighter color) and its water on the map below:

hidrografia2

The underground storage by the “inverted forest” feeds watersheds and important aquifers such as the Guarani, the second largest in the world, with a 1,200,000 km² territory. 

However, for the last 25 years, around 40% of the overall vegetation has been deforested for industrial crops, mainly soybeans. Another 40% were deforested by the cattle and charcoal industry.

deforestationcerradoOnly circa 20% of its original vegetation remains intact, baru trees included, resulting on a thinning of the water tables, worsened by industrial irrigation. The impact of this deforestation is mostly ignored by official authorities, although widely published internationally.

Remember the 90s? Did you ever wonder how come nobody talks about saving the rainforest as much anymore? The deforesting of an exuberant biome such as the Amazon brought a lot of international bad rap to Brazil. This caused the inevitable trickling of such a large industry to the neighbouring, more discrete Cerrado.

soja-no-cerrado

Once Cerrado, now soy crops

The Cerrado deforestation is the direct result of decades of Brazilian government policies. Since the 1990’s, this deforestation has been intimately associated with the industrial agriculture lobby machine. Over time, every sort of incentive was provided to “develop” what now is the country’s main grain belt for export commodities.

Ironically, the exporting of baru seeds is only possible nowadays due to a direct result of those incentives. It is the recent development of Midwestern Brazil’s roads that enabled baru to become a “thing”.

The current interest in baru has stimulated local communities to shift attention from commodities. Revenue from the fruits and seeds is an important and renewable incentive to preserving trees. It concentrates local efforts on reforesting the Cerrado with baru and other native species. However, most of the damage is still caused by large trading companies.

The next post in this series will address the people living in the Cerrado, and their vulnerability to the hostile Brazilian agribusiness environment. See you then!

REFERENCES

Herrero, T. “Teríamos evitado o desmatamento da Amazônia se tivéssemos olhado para o Cerrado”. Revista Época, July 30, 2015. São Paulo, SP, Brazil.

Manzione RL, Knotters M, Heuvelink GBM, Asmuth JRV & Camara G. Transfer function-noise modeling and spatial interpolation to evaluate the risk of extreme (shallow) water-table levels in the Brazilian Cerrados. Hydrogeology Journal 18 (2010)8. – ISSN 1431-2174 – p. 1927 – 1937.

McClain ME, Victoria RL, Richey JE. The Biogeochemistry of the Amazon Basin. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Reis SM, Lenza E, Marimon BS, Gomes L, Forsthofer M, Morandi PS et al. Post-fire dynamics of the woody vegetation of a savanna forest (Cerradão) in the Cerrado-Amazon transition zone. Acta Bot. Bras.  2015 Sep 29( 3 ): 408-416.

Sano SM. Almeida SP. Cerrado: ambiente e flora. Editora Embrapa, Planaltina, 556p,  1998.

Tabuchi H, Rigby C & White J. Amazon Deforestation, Once Tamed, Comes Roaring Back. The New York Times, February 24, 2017.