The 20-Year Quest To Save Nutella Global demand for hazelnuts is growing, thanks to the popularity of products like Nutella. So it should be a great time to be in the hazelnut business... but there's one big problem.
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The 20-Year Quest To Save Nutella

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The 20-Year Quest To Save Nutella

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: Thanks for listening to THE INDICATOR. We'd like to better understand who is listening and how you are using podcasts. So please help us out by completing a short, anonymous survey at npr.org/podcastsurvey. That's all one word - podcastsurvey. It takes less than 10 minutes, and it really helps support the show. Again, that's npr.org/podcastsurvey. Thanks very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

DARIUS RAFIEYAN, HOST:

And I'm Darius Rafieyan. And this is THE INDICATOR from Planet Money.

VANEK SMITH: And today is a very good day because today, Darius, we get to talk about Nutella.

RAFIEYAN: Finally.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

RAFIEYAN: I mean, I love Nutella. I know you love Nutella.

VANEK SMITH: I do love Nutella.

RAFIEYAN: I mean, everybody loves Nutella.

VANEK SMITH: What's not to love?

RAFIEYAN: But the supply of this beloved ambrosial chocolatey paste, it could be under threat, Stacey. And it's because of something that gives Nutella its characteristic flavor - hazelnuts.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. Hazelnuts have a problem, a serious supply bottleneck. More than 70 percent of the world's hazelnuts come from one place - come from Turkey. In fact, a quarter of the world's hazelnuts come from just this one tiny town in Turkey. And that, of course, leaves production and Nutella lovers everywhere very vulnerable.

RAFIEYAN: Right. I mean, just a few years ago, there was an unexpected frost in Turkey that wiped out a huge chunk of the crop. And prices jumped, like, 60 percent and threatened a worldwide Nutella shortage.

VANEK SMITH: That's, like, the fifth horsemen of the apocalypse.

RAFIEYAN: (Laughter) Pestilence, plague, no Nutella. And, I mean, even in the best of times, Turkey is, you know, a little bit of an unreliable partner.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, absolutely.

RAFIEYAN: You know, the Turkish lira goes up and down. The price of hazelnuts can fluctuate accordingly. And, you know, it just leaves packers and producers on the hook. But luckily for us, one man is on the case.

VANEK SMITH: Today on the show - how one man's lifelong obsession with hazelnuts could help save Nutella and revolutionize an entire global industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORNING START")

RAFIEYAN: I first met biologist Tom Molnar in his office at the Rutgers University ornamental field lab. He was surrounded by these big plastic bins just filled with thousands upon thousands of hazelnuts.

TOM MOLNAR: For example, here's one that has ridges and lumps. And to me, that's kind of an ugly-looking hazelnut, whereas something like this here, they're really shiny and smooth.

RAFIEYAN: For the past 23 years, this has been Tom's life, just sifting through endless piles of hazelnuts in search of that one perfect nut.

VANEK SMITH: Now, we mentioned that the hazelnut industry has a supply problem. Turkey has a stranglehold on production. So the obvious solution to that problem would be to find a new place to grow hazelnuts. And the East Coast of the United States would be perfect, perfect growing conditions, except for one thing.

MOLNAR: We would have had a hazelnut industry in the northeast if it wasn't for Eastern Filbert Blight.

RAFIEYAN: Eastern Filbert Blight - it's a fungal disease. It's native to North America, and it grows under the bark of hazelnut trees and kind of rots them from the inside. Infected trees - they develop these telltale cankers on their bark. Tom actually took me out to his research orchard and showed me some of them firsthand.

MOLNAR: So as we look down in here, you'll see that there's little pustules that poke out through. So those are like little mushrooms. Those are the fruiting bodies where the spores will actually be ejected from and spread to other trees.

RAFIEYAN: Mmm, Fruiting bodies and...

VANEK SMITH: Oh, my God.

RAFIEYAN: ...Fungal pustules.

VANEK SMITH: I didn't want to go from Nutella to fruiting bodies.

RAFIEYAN: This fungus has been Tom's sworn nemesis for 23 years. That was when he got involved in this ambitious project to develop hazelnuts as this sort of, like, utopian post-climate change food source.

VANEK SMITH: Yes because hazelnuts, in addition to being delicious, are this kind of miracle crop. They're what is known as a low-input crop, meaning they can grow without irrigation, without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. And they can grow on what is called marginal land, land that would otherwise be useless. Plus, the harvesting of hazelnuts can be mechanized, so it doesn't necessarily require that much labor. And a single hazelnut tree can be productive for up to 100 years. The only problem they needed to solve to make this happen to cover the East Coast with hazelnut trees was Eastern Filbert Blight.

RAFIEYAN: And Tom's plan to do that was based on a very simple yet revolutionary idea. See, hazelnuts, they've grown naturally all over Eastern Europe and Central Asia for thousands of years. And so Tom figured that somewhere out there among the many millions of hazelnut trees, the gene for disease resistance that he needed was hiding like a needle in a massive haystack. So he set out to find that gene.

MOLNAR: We started in Moscow, traveled south going through Krasnodar into Sochi and then into Crimea. Then we flew up to Romania and Moldova to Poland and Belarus, then followed that up to the Baltic States - Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania.

RAFIEYAN: For seven years, Tom traveled all over the native hazelnut range collecting specimens, and this was not your typical horticultural fieldwork. I mean, it could involve everything from, like, haggling with merchants in a bazaar in Uzbekistan to, like, sharing a glass of homemade vodka with the little old lady at a roadside stand in Crimea. Once while crossing into Ukraine with 80 pounds of nuts in his suitcase, he even got shaken down by the local police.

MOLNAR: They start screaming at me. They start screaming at my colleagues. They have guns. And this is silly, but at the same time, I had a suitcase full of all the nuts that I so desperately did not want to lose. So I'm nervous about the nuts. I'm nervous we're going to get robbed or worse.

RAFIEYAN: But you were more worried about the nuts than the money.

MOLNAR: I was very nervous about the nuts. Those were my babies.

VANEK SMITH: Those were his babies.

RAFIEYAN: This man has - he's really poured his heart and soul into this project. And he knew that in order to make a commercially viable nut, he needed that perfect combination of traits. And so after years of collecting all this genetic material, he came back to New Jersey out to his research farm at Rutgers, and he got to work breeding.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. Apparently Tom planted thousands of trees and then exposed them to the Eastern Filbert Blight and then just waited. And then season by season, he meticulously catalogued the growth of each individual tree, taking note of, you know, nut quality, looking out for signs of disease. And then he started cross-breeding the most promising trees to make new offspring, gradually inching closer and closer to the goal nut.

RAFIEYAN: But no matter what he tried, the blight was always there.

VANEK SMITH: But eventually after years and years of failures and false starts, Tom did it. He created a tree strong enough to resist the blight. And, Darius, Tom took you to see it, right?

RAFIEYAN: Yeah. He took me to see this amazing tree. It was standing, like, all alone in this field because it was the last one that had survived.

Does he have a name?

MOLNAR: Seven hundred twenty-five (laughter). This is H3R7P25, so we call him 725.

RAFIEYAN: And, you know, seeing him stand there kind of, like, running his fingers over the bark, he was really looking at it like it was his baby.

MOLNAR: I germinated this seed just me by myself putzing around as a student. And this one ends up being a real special plant.

VANEK SMITH: This could have impacts beyond just Nutella. Tom sees this is the start of a whole new industry on the East Coast. The only thing left to do now is just to convince farmers to start planting hazelnuts. And Tom has been bringing prospective growers out to this orchard and pitching them on the amazing properties of 725, his new miracle plant.

RAFIEYAN: And, you know, a few farmers have taken him up on it. They've started planting some trees, but, you know, as with most things in tree breeding, it'll be at least a few years before they start to bare nuts. But if it takes off the way that Tom and Rutgers no doubt hope it will, that could make Tom a very, very rich man. But, you know, he says he didn't spend 20 years of his life sifting through hazelnuts just for the money.

MOLNAR: Ever since I was young, I wanted to do something that had a positive impact and sort of left a mark beyond just my individual life. And I think that's what - that drew me to a tree breeding. Plants can sort of live on forever. So if you select the right variety that could be around way after you're gone, but maybe your grandchildren can grow that in your yard and think about that, you know, their grandfather actually selected that plant.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

RAFIEYAN: This episode was produced by me.

VANEK SMITH: You. You produced it.

RAFIEYAN: And our editor is Paddy Hirsch. Our intern and fact-checker is Willa Rubin. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR. Also while reporting this story, team INDICATOR discovered some interesting hazelnut-based products that we weren't aware of. To learn more about those, check out our Instagram. We're @planetmoney.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

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