Dan Murphy: Cashew Denial — With A Smile

Cashew nut growing. ( . )

Ask vegan restaurateurs about their menus, and you’ll hear hosannas to the plant-based entrées they claim are so superior to animal foods — except for one glaring omission.

This being election season — the primary for state and local races with more than two candidates occurs here in Washington state in early August — I happened to be attending a campaign fundraiser the other night that was hosted by a lovely couple.

The owner-operators who hosted the event, held in a beautiful old house converted to a trendy restaurant with outdoor seating overlooking Puget Sound, were an ex-pat Brit and his born-again vegan partner. They couldn’t have been friendlier, cheerier and truth be told, more passionate about their vegan menu.

Called Sage and Cinder (?), the bistro’s menu included such veggie staples as hummus, tofu and jackfruit, as well as the usual upscale-sounding items, like Egyptian dukkah, a spicy mixture of herbs and nuts that’s served with bread or vegetables as an hors d’œuvre, and andouille red bean meatballs with a coconut-lemon beurre blanc sauce.

(I had to look up that one: it’s an emulsified butter sauce made with a reduction of white wine).

As you might imagine, I got into a conversation with the owners about their contention that if only the world went vegan, we’d solve a host of problems, not limited to nutritional deficiencies, climate change and loss of agricultural productivity.

For me, such discussion travel familiar paths, as I try to diplomatically suggest that the hundreds of millions of acres of rangeland globally that are unfit for farming but able to support livestock would be taken out of production; that the more than one billion people living in climates wholly unsuited to any kind of row crops would be dependent on non-local, imported foods; and that the substitution of plant-based processed foods for the world’s supply of meat, poultry, dairy products and eggs would necessitate a monumental increase in farmland, irrigation and energy inputs, all of which would (at best) negate any of the alleged eco-positives vegans love to cite in comparing pants versus animals as the preferred food source.

A discussion to be avoided

None of that makes a dent with most vegans, of course, because they’ve bought into the idea that no matter what, vegetarian foods are superior in every way to animal foods.

However, despite the self-righteous satisfaction that accompanies virtually everyone who’s embraced veganism, the majority are notoriously willing to turn a blind eye to the use of ingredients that cause serious ecological damage, perpetuate near-slave labor conditions and carry a significant carbon footprint — just as long as the resulting food product of menu item didn’t involve any farm animals.

Take cashews, for example. The fruit of the tropical Anacardium occidentale tree is widely used to manufacture vegan “cheeze,” “ice creem” and non-dairy “milque.” Certainly, the nuts are a valuable source of plant protein, fiber and unsaturated fat, the nutritional trifecta that vegans revere with a passion normally reserved for the religious Trinity.

But here’s the problem with cashews that vegans choose to ignore: Cashews are a tropical product grown mainly on plantations in India, Vietnam and The Philippines, along with such countries as Cote d’Ivoire, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau.

I doubt if most vegans could locate those last three countries on a map, but if they could, they might realize a central fact about cashews production: You need to destroy rainforests to cultivate cashew trees.

But at least no animals were harmed in the process, so it’s still better than ranching, right?

Well yes, if you overlook the fact that cashew harvesting and processing is extremely labor-intensive. It’s done mainly by women earning poverty-level wages who suffer from serious occupational hazards, such as permanent damage to their hands from the caustic acids underneath the hard shells that have to be removed to extract the nuts.

That’s not the worst of the industry. In Vietnam, according to a TIME magazine report, cashews are routinely hand-processed by prisoners in forced labor camps, a practice horrific enough the magazine described the products of such camps as “blood cashews.”

But spend even three minutes online and you can access a wealth of “better-for-you” foods manufactured from cashews. Likewise, virtually every vegan restaurant in North America is guaranteed to offer multiple menu items — formulated and flavored to resemble animal foods, by the way — made from cashews.

A situation even the most dedicated vegans won’t discuss.

They’re too busy detailing the “horrors” of raising cattle and milking cows.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.

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