Global demand for pine nuts is causing unsustainable harvests of the ingredient from Korean pine trees, a keystone species in Russia’s far east, that could potentially lead to environmental collapse. These pine nuts, typically sold to Chinese merchants who then export them to the United States, became popular as a cheaper alternative to those harvested from Italian stone pines. They’re an essential ingredient in pesto (and also in basically every recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi), but in an op-ed for the New York Times, Jonathan C. Slaght, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s projects manager for the Russia program, writes that you should probably think twice about cooking with them.
In the pine ecosystem of Russia’s far east, animals as small as chipmunks and as big as black bears, and everything in between, depend on the fallen nuts and cones. But pickers are, legally, combing the forest floor for every last pine cone they can find. Unless something is done to protect the trees and curtail pickers, Slaght argues this unchecked collection could lead to environmental collapse. This is particularly dire given the fact that, as Slaght points out, Eastern Russia’s temperate rain forest is home to 25 percent of the country’s endangered vertebrates, despite covering only one percent of its land.
If you can’t kick your cheap-pine-nut habit, the responsible move would be to get some domestic ones harvested from the Southwest’s pinyon trees, which currently only supply 20 percent of the North American market. Or, maybe, eat some almonds.