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29th Aug 2021

Yikes – turns out our Nutella addiction is having some pretty dire ecological consequences

Trine Jensen-Burke

Nutella harming Italy's eco system

Drizzle it on pancakes, slather it on toast, stir it into your coffee (yes, really) or eat it with a spoon straight from the jar – I think we can all agree that there is no wrong way to eat Nutella.

However, while there seems to be no end to our collective obsession with our favourite chocolate spread, it turns out this is not such good news for the environment.

According to new reports, the intensive hazelnut farming driven by Ferrero, the Italian company that makes Nutella, is causing massive ecological problems in the Italian countryside and for Italian farmers.

Speaking to the Finacial Times, Giacomo Andreocci, who runs a small organic farm north of Rome, said he feels like part of a dying breed — thanks to Nutella.

Andreocci explains that the land around Vignanello, where he farms, used to be planted with a diverse mix including olives, vines and hazelnuts. However, in the past few years, Ferrero has made sure many of the surrounding valleys have been turned over to intensive hazelnut farming, with monoculture plantations replacing grassy pastures, small farms and rows of vines.

“Hazelnut cultivation has exploded massively, triggering such rapid change in the ecosystem around us that nature is no longer able to sustain it,” says Andreocci.

“Hazelnut trees are now planted everywhere . . . and they are sucking up all our land’s resources.”

The problem started when Ferrero decided to reduce their reliance on hazelnuts imported from Turkey and instead shorten supply chains and boost local production, meaning they needed to seriously up the production of hazelnuts at home in Italy.

According to The Ecologist, the underlying reason for this move is that after many years of chemically driven intensive monoculture many of the Turkish plantations are becoming sterile and barren.

As part of the new plan, Ferrero aims to increase Italy’s national production of hazelnuts by as much as 30 percent by 2025 – a target that means that thousands of groves previously used to grow things like olives, grapes, lemons, oranges, peaches, apples and other tree nuts will now be converted by farmers – who are being offered an economic incentive – into hazelnut groves.

The problem? The lack of biodiversity often means the land eventually gets ruined – and, according to Goffredo Filibeck, an environmental researcher at Tuscia University in Viterbo – monocultures (only growing one thing) help spread plant diseases and insects, resulting in the greater use of pesticides and herbicides.

“Intensive farming can also deplete underground aquifers and rob indigenous species of their habitat,” Filibeck explains to the Financial Times.

“The more we pursue this approach, the more we move towards a point of no return.”

Cancer-causing pesticide use

Traditionally, the hazelnut tree, which is more like a shrub, is found on slopes and mountainsides where the roots can bind and stabilise steep terrain, helping to prevent land slippage.

It flourishes best when grown within woods and forests where it is protected as part of a wider community of plant species, because every plant species carries within it a diverse apothecary of immunisation to ward off pests and disease.

However, when confronted with the massive production quantity requirements of companies such as Ferrero, the hazelnut has to be farmed monoculturally, and becomes vulnerable to pests because there are no other plant species to protect it.

The solution? Chemicals. And lots of it.

In fact, near in Lago di Vico, a small lake south of Lago di Bolsena, hazelnut plantations are much more established and the monocultural effect is openly visible.

An international research project recently proved conclusively that the water of Lago di Vico contains an excessive load of chemical contaminants derived from hazelnut crops.

This then becomes even more shocking when you take into account that the area has seen a high level of unusual cancers over the past few years – specifically around the areas of intensive hazelnut farming.

Palm oil and the destruction of rainforests

With all the focus on hazelnuts, you might be surprised when you read the ingredient list on the back of your Nutella jar to realise that hazelnuts only actually make up 13 percent of Nutella. The rest is (by far) mostly sugar and palm oil. In fact, those two combined make up more than 50 percent of your jar of Nutella.

Palm oil is, of course, another ecological black sheep for Nutella – especially since they are one of the world’s biggest users of it.

The problem is that the worldwide demand for palm oil is skyrocketing – and this demand is convincing farmers in tropical climates – most notably Indonesia and Malaysia, where about 85 percent of the world’s palm oil is cultivated – to cut down rainforests and create palm oil plantations instead.

To be fair, Ferrero has made an effort over the past few years to be more transparent with how and from where they source their palm oil, and, in 2013, launched their 10-point Palm Oil Charter, a commitment to consumers that the palm oil used in Nutella does not contribute to deforestation, species extinction, greenhouse gas emissions, or human rights violations.

But the industry and its vastness and environmental impact is still a massive problem globally in terms of our environment.

So as a consumer, where do we go from here? Maybe a start would be to at the very least make sure that when purchasing products that contain palm oil, ensure the products is made by a company that is certified sustainable. And while swearing off Nutella completely might not be the solution either, maybe we can try to minimize how often we indulge in our favourite treat, and only saving it for special occasions?