What nuts are best for sustainability and labour issues?

By Helena Friesen

In recent years, many people are trying to follow a (more) plant-based diet. One plant-based source of protein is nuts. However, all nuts are not equal in terms of how far they travel to get to us, sustainability of farming practices, including the need for irrigation, and issues involving labour.  Here we suggest some considerations in choosing nuts.

Almonds, walnuts, pistachios

Grown in:  California, the Mediterranean             

Karma’s almonds are from Spain and California, walnuts and pistachios from California.

Farming practices:  monoculture; use of migratory bees for pollination causes severe strain on bee populations in California1; massive need for irrigation in drought-stricken regions (California and Spain)2, 3

Labour issues:  standard North American 4 /European

Bottom line: If possible, choose Organic/Bee friendly

Brazil nuts

Grown in:  Amazon rainforest    

Karma’s Brazil nuts are from Bolivia.

Farming practices:  need to be grown in the company of other plants (no monocultures); require local pollinators; actually support the rainforest5

Labour issues:  harvested by migrant workers (as are other nuts)

Bottom line: Sustainable


Karma’s bulk cashew selection

Grown in:  Africa, India, Vietnam              

Karma’s cashews are from Vietnam and Burkina Faso.

Farming practices:  provide wildlife habitat and prevent erosion; fairly water intensive2, 6

Labour issues: most cashews shipped to India for processing where working conditions are often poor: workers shell the nuts by hand, sometimes exposing their skin to burns from the caustic oils inside7, 8.

Bottom line: If possible, choose Fair trade


Grown in:  Southern USA             

Karma’s pecans are from Texas.

Farming practices: some have heavy pesticide use to keep away black aphids9; need irrigation if grown in arid climate10

Labour issues: standard North American4

Bottom line: If possible, choose Organic


Grown in:  Turkey           

Karma’s hazelnuts are from Turkey.

Farming practices:  long-lasting, hardy, erosion-blocking, and requiring no pesticides; produced under water stress2, 6

Labour issues: child labour and underpaid Syrian refugee labour frequently used in hazelnut farming11, 12

Bottom line: If possible, choose Fair trade

Pine nuts      

Grown in:  Asia, Russia, Middle East, Italy, Southwestern United States

Karma’s pine nuts are from China.

Farming practices: pine trees grow in wild forests; however, some areas have issues with destructive harvesting13; often, after harvesting, not enough pine nuts are left to feed the local wildlife14.

Labour issues: depends on location. Reports of bad labour practices in Russia, China15  

Bottom line: If possible, avoid underpriced pine nuts. North American pine nuts may be sustainably sourced.


Grown in:  many countries worldwide    

Karma’s peanuts are from Ontario.

Farming practices: peanuts fix nitrogen so they are good for the soil; negligible water needs6; some fungicide use.

Labour issues: standard North American4

Bottom line: If possible, choose Organic and Local

Seeds (pumpkin, sunflower)

Grown in: many countries worldwide

Karma’s pumpkin seeds are currently from China and USA, sunflower seeds from Bulgaria.

Farming practices: monoculture but generally sustainable; negligible water needs6

Labour issues: depend on country of origin 

Bottom line: Sustainable

In summary, Brazil nuts have to travel a long way to get to us but are grown in a sustainable manner.  Other types of imported nuts, such as hazelnuts and cashews, may be sustainable but it is important to consider labour issues.  Karma has recently started to sell Fair Trade cashews from Burkina Faso.

The only local nuts available in Ontario are peanuts; Ontario peanuts are highly sustainable.  Otherwise, seeds (which can be grown in Ontario) are a sustainable option. Karma has just found a supplier for locally grown pumpkin seeds, so these should be available soon. 

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/07/honeybees-deaths-almonds-hives-aoe
  2. https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/science-update/worldwide-74-irrigated-nuts-are-produced-under-water-stress
  3. https://phys.org/news/2018-09-spanish-farmers-nuts-almonds-global.html
  4. Standard North American labour issues may include difficult working conditions (long hours in the sun and heat, physically demanding work, possible exposure to harmful chemicals), low pay, labour laws may go unenforced, migrant workers are likely especially vulnerable 9. This may not be different in other continents.
  5.  https://www.amazonconservation.org/what-we-do/empower-people/food-agriculture/
  6. https://88acres.com/blogs/news/water-footprint-of-seeds-vs-nuts
  7. https://www.slowfood.com/cashew-nuts-a-toxic-industry/
  8. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/ng-interactive/2013/nov/cashew-nut-industry-true-cost
  9. https://www.sustained.kitchen/latest/2018/9/5/sustainability-profile-nuts
  10. https://foodprint.org/real-food/pecans/
  11. https://www.rainforest-alliance.org/articles/addressing-child-labor-on-hazelnut-farms-in-turkey
  12. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/29/business/syrian-refugees-turkey-hazelnut-farms.html
  13. http://ediblorial.com/pine-nuts-environment-impact/
  14. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/19/opinion/making-pesto-hold-the-pine-nuts.html
  15. http://www.sixthtone.com/news/1001195/the-life-and-death-of-a-pine-nut-picker