A pistachio power struggle cracked wide open… and the Middle East is going nuts

Iran, which has been a pistachio powerhouse since the days of ancient Persia, has been overtaken by the US as the world’s largest pistachio producer, and now other countries like Georgia are may take a crack at the nut market


February 23, 2020

Long before the world’s best-branded nuts danced to “Gangnam Style” in a Super Bowl ad, pistachios were a Persian delicacy popular among history’s most famous food snobs, from the Queen of Sheba to Roman emperors.

But while Persia — or modern day Iran — was the undisputed global capital of pistachio production for more than 1k years, the balance of pistachio power has finally shifted toward the US.

Now Middle Eastern pistachio growers are going nuts to compete.

Iran was once the undisputed Prince of Pistachios

The nuts, which are native to the Middle East, started making their way to the wider world during the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE.

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Production slowly took root in Greece and Italy in the centuries thereafter, but Iran remained the globe’s green-nut giant.

Then, America cracked the market

Although nutty American botanists had been dabbling in pistachio cultivations since the 1920s, widespread pistachio plantings — mostly in California and the American southwest — didn’t start until the 1960s.

The first commercial crop of US pistachios hit markets in 1976. Since then, the pistachio harvest has increased 599%.

But America didn’t outshell Iranian nut growers right away

Between 2004 and 2009, Iran produced 40% of the world’s pistachios, while America produced just 33%.

But from 2014 to 2019, Iran’s share fell to 27%… while the US’s grew to 47%.

Iranian pistachio producers are also struggling to combat warming weather and dwindling water supplies, which have caused widespread pistachio shortages.

The shortages have inspired… new competition

Massive multinational nut distributors are considering cultivating “green gold” in countries like Georgia, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Romania, and even China and Australia.

If they take root, these nut operations could blossom into big businesses: In America, nut businesses have become multibillion-dollar empires.

In Georgia, which has a population of just 3.7m, growers estimate the country’s nut exports could become a $4.5B business.

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