National / International News
The water-thirsty nut crops grown in California are getting a lot of attention these days given that state’s four-year drought.
Take walnuts for example. The drought has affected both supply and quality of this popular nut, and that’s helped double its price over the last few years. But with increased prices, coupled with declining quality, consumers are looking for alternatives.
That means farmers are starting to look at other places – and other nuts – to grow. The interest is good news for pecan growers in places like Texas and Georgia, because pecans are a natural substitute for walnuts.
“The applications, particularly when you’re talking about baking, are very similar,” says Dan Zedan of Nature’s Finest Foods, which specializes in marketing tree nuts.
Aside from the obvious differences – different nuts, different trees – there’s one key distinction between the two: where the nuts are grown. Pecans are grown in a handful of states and can flourish in a variety of climates. Walnuts, on the other hand, need arid conditions to thrive and are grown almost exclusively in California.
With the price of walnuts on the uptick, Zedans says, “We’ve seen a significant shift in consumption of Pecans.”
Zedan says confectioners and bakers have always preferred pecans, but up until recently pecans have generally been the more expensive option. The opposite has been true in the last three years.
“[Pecans] have a much better flavor profile, they have a better shelf life, they’re a bit more versatile, and there is a quality perception difference between walnuts and pecans,” Zedan says.
This is all good news for Georgia, which is the top pecan producer in the U.S. Other pecan producing states like Texas and New Mexico are happy too.
Lenny Wells, a pecan specialist with the University of Georgia, says the pecan industry was booming even before the California drought. Growers, he says, have seen almost a dollar increase per pound in the last few years.
“A lot of that is driven by the export demand for pecans right now, mainly to Asia,” Wells says. “So the economics looks good and we’ve had a lot of outside interest in the industry.”
With California’s ongoing drought, this interest is showing no signs of letting up.
Wells says he’s even gotten a couple of calls from California nut growers looking to set up shop in Georgia.
California’s public-employee pension fund—Calpers—is reportedly looking to unload some trees. About 300,000 acres-worth, according to The Wall Street Journal, which reports Calpers wants to sell timberland it owns in the Southeastern U.S.
Calpers lists about $2.2 billion worth of forestland investments in its $300 billion portfolio; it has much bigger stakes in investment classes such as stocks, bonds, and real estate. The investments fund the pensions of more than 1.5 million California public employees and retirees in California.
Back in the early 2000s, the trend was to diversify investments to get higher returns (Calpers faces underfunded pension liabilities, as do many other state pension funds). But some alternative investments didn’t pan out, says economist John Canally at LPL Financial.
“What happened to timber prices over the last ten years—you basically got no return on forestry stocks,” says Canally. He says the housing crash and global recession depressed the lumber market. If pension funds like Calpers had left their money in stocks and bonds, he says, their investments would have been more profitable in the long run.
A spokesman for Calpers told Marketplace by email that he could not confirm any plans to downsize Calpers’ timber holdings or review that segment of the fund’s portfolio.
University of Georgia forestry business professor Thomas Harris says that if Calpers did want to sell its timberlands in Louisiana and East Texas, there would be plenty of potential buyers. “Weyerhauser, Potlach, Plum Creek, have been active in acquiring timber land,” says Harris. “There’s interest by pension funds and high-wealth individuals.”
Harris says timber can be an attractive and stable investment, because the trees keep growing, getting more valuable as time goes on.
Mexico and the United States have the highest rates of obesity of any major country in the world, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
But Mexico has been taking steps to change that. "In the United States, we think we're the first to do everything, but that's not necessarily true," says Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. "And in the case of policies, to address the obesity problem, there are other countries that have been out of the gate earlier than we have."
Mexico is one of the first countries to adopt a tax on sugary beverages, a ban on junk food advertisement during kids' shows and movies, and a push towards healthier food in schools. But Franco Sassi, senior health economist at the OECD, says it is difficult to specify exactly what constitutes a "healthy food."
When it comes to obesity, there is no single food and policy that can tip the scales by itself, Sassi says.
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