North America's insatiable appetite for Italian products, and the air of sophistication that comes along with them, has led to far-reaching consequences for food and booze artisans.
For starters, the incessant demand for olive oil—long branded as the "healthy" lipid—compounded by a brutal year for producers weather-wise, has created a huge market of cheap and fraudulently labelled bottles, all at the expense of the of the producers who make the good stuff.
And more recently, the low price point of Prosecco has made drinkers around the world realize that they don't need to pay Champagne prices to get drunk on bubbly wine. This phenomenon sent production up to 400 million bottles last year, way past Champagne's mere 300 million—despite poor weather and excessive rain—all of which sparked fears of a global Prosecco shortage.
And now, an entire ecosystem appears to be threatened by our love for one of the tiniest, and most delicious, nuts.
Pine nuts are expensive not just because of demand, but because they are the most labour intensive of the nuts—they have to be manually picked from pine cones, which contain only about 100 nuts each. Currently, the most widely consumed species in American kitchens is Pinus koraiensis, better known as the Korean pine nut, which grows predominately in Russia's far east, near its border with China, where they end up being shipped by the truckload.
In an op-ed for the New York Times, Jonathan C. Slaght, a projects manager for the Russia program of the Wildlife Conservation Society, pleads with North American consumers, whose ravenous appetite for pine nut and basil purées is affecting everything from vegetation to wildlife.
"Last year, I encountered a group of collectors in the forest that had filled 4,000 sacks—half a million cones—in just six weeks," Slaght writes. "At the peak of the harvest season, the forests are populated with thousands of collectors in hundreds of makeshift camps."
This huge industry, fuelled in large part by American consumers, is creating an enormous strain on the Koeran pine. "The global demand is making this harvest unsustainable. The entire Korean pine ecosystem could collapse if it continues. We are already seeing the cracks appearing: The shortage of pine nuts in the forests may have contributed to recent incidents of starving bears roaming the streets—and even attacking residents."
That's right—America's demand for pesto is causing Russian bear attacks. And if that weren't scary enough, Slaght goes on to say that the pine nut that we love so much carries an "unseen cost" that could ruin an entire ecosystem "bottom to top, seedling to tree, and chipmunk to tiger."
As a result, Slaght recommends using "palate-pleasing" alternatives to Pinus koraiensis, like walnuts, cashews, pistachios, and almonds. And for the American pine nut purist, he recommends buying local in order to lighten the burden on the east Russian ecosystem.
But right now, it might be time to say to hell with the purists and get creative. Give the pine nuts (and the tigers and chipmunks) some time to regenerate by making almond pesto instead—it's way cheaper anyways.