Harvests from California's almond orchards are increasingly being sent to Asia to meet rising consumer demand. Image: USDA NRCS.

Asia Goes Nuts for California Almonds

Japan Korea China India Taiwan

In recent years, the state of California has observed a dramatic and sustained increase in its tree nut exports. It is the biggest agricultural export category for the state, accounting for one-third of the total revenue from Californian agricultural products exports. In 2012, more than 90% of American tree nuts for export were harvested in California. The driving force behind this significant surge is strong Asian demands.

Almonds are the biggest driver behind the increase in tree nuts exports. They are the single biggest agricultural export of California, worth over $3 billion to the state’s economy in 2012. In India and China, the biggest agricultural import from California has uncontestably been almonds. China has also been the biggest importer of American almonds, pistachios and walnuts overall, not just California’s.

The last decade has seen California' tree nut export revenues skyrocket.

Other Asian countries such as Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea have also been increasing their Californian tree nuts imports, especially almonds. In Japan and Taiwan, almonds are only second to rice in terms of products imported from California, while in South Korea almonds are again second, but this time behind California oranges. Most importantly, Californian tree nuts imports for all of these Asian countries are only rising, providing better and better economic prospects every year. With increasing attention to healthy foods, almond sales are expected to rise even further in Asia thanks to the nut’s ‘heart-healthy’ nutrients.

Historically, Asia was no stranger to the health benefits of almonds. Chinese writings during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) describe it as a remedy for coughing and upset stomach. The Japanese encyclopedia in the 17th century also describes almonds as a medicinal plant that soothes coughing. In South and Southeast Asia, almonds have traditionally been used in cooking as well.

Recently, changes in preferences and lifestyle solidified the presence of Californian tree nuts in Asia. Western-style pastries, cookies, and other baked goods use a fair share of tree nuts, while raw or roasted ones are increasingly popular snack choices. Given this strong demand from Asia, California’s tree nuts production and exports are only expected to grow.

Hyung Ki (John) Kim is a research intern at the East-West Center in Washington.