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The way ahead of luxurious snack: Pakistani pine nuts in China

By Staff Reporter | China Economic Net Mar 21, 2022

Beijing, Mar. 21 (China Economic Net)- “Plump and fragrant. I can easily peel it off without any tools, just by hand!” “I will definitely recommend it to my friends.” On one of China's leading e-commerce platforms, click on the homepage of a Pakistani pine nuts shop with the highest sales volume, it's not difficult to see that the monthly sales volume exceeds 8,000 pieces, and among the more than 7,000 reviews, such praise can be found everywhere. 

The way ahead of luxurious snack: Pakistani pine nuts in China

In the Chinese nut market, Pakistani pine nuts means a veritable “luxury”. At present, its price on mainstream Chinese e-commerce platforms is as high as about RMB 300-650 per kilogram (about 8,473-18,359 rupees). However, Pakistani exporters have been complaining that the price of local pine nuts dropped sharply, “at its worst, each kilogram can be sold for less than 2,000 rupees (about Rmb 71 ).”

Why is the price of the same product so different in the two countries? Can these little nuts bring more opportunities to Pakistan?

Demand creates “luxury”

In China, Pakistani pine nuts enjoy a high price premium. A bag of selected Pakistani pine nuts (400 grams) can even sell for Rmb 190  (about 5,366 rupees), which is nearly twice that of other kinds. 

At present, China has become one of the main export destinations for Pakistani pine nuts. According to the Agriculture Marketing Information Service (AMIS), in FY 2018-2019 (July 2018-June 2019, a good year) and FY 2019-2020 (a small year), Pakistan exported 692 tons and 73.9 tons of pine nuts to China respectively, worth 820 million and 190 million rupees, accounting for 45.86 percent and 14 percent of the total export volume.

“Compared with other main varieties in the Chinese market, including Siberian and Korean pine, Pakistani pine nuts have a huge variety advantage. With a thinner skin and plumper flesh, it has low fat content and rich nutrients. Beyond that, the kernel rate of Pakistani pine nuts can reach 80 percent, while that of red pine nuts from northeast China is about 40 percent, only half of the Pakistani type.” Xin Mindong, Manager of Zhicheng Food Co., Ltd., Meihekou City, Jilin, who has been trading Pakistani pine nuts for more than 15 years, told China Economic Net in an exclusive interview, “For us, due to the impact of the epidemic in the past two years, land routes have been partially blocked, and  sea transport may take as long as 40 days, which is not conducive to the storage of pine nuts. Besides, the market price of pine nuts  fluctuates continually. In contrast, expensive air transport is our best choice now. So far, flights have been cut because of the epidemic, the air freight per ton of pine nuts is about RMB 37,000, which has invisibly increased the cost.”

The way ahead of luxurious snack: Pakistani pine nuts in China

And what about sea transport? “Pakistan pine nuts are generally shipped from Karachi Port to Ningbo Port, Zhejiang. The transportation price is about Rmb 17,000 per ton, which is much cheaper than air freight,” Xin told CEN. “But in addition to time, we also need to consider the wastage. With thinner skins, Pakistani pine nuts are easily broken or damaged during handling. In addition, we have to process it in advance to remove moisture. Otherwise, the pine nuts in the container will become moldy and deteriorate. We have established a plant in Pakistan. After preliminary dehydration processing locally, mildewed and relatively poor-quality pine nuts are removed for easier transportation.”

Pakistan: large producer of high-quality pine nuts

Pakistani pine nuts originate from the Chilgoza pine forest in northwestern Pakistan, which ranges from 1800 to 3350 meters above sea level. A pine tree takes 20 to 25 years to start bearing fruit, which is why its yield is limited, as the Chinese saying goes, “something must be preciouse when it's rare.”

Picking pine nuts is an arduous work. Farmers need to go to the pine forest to pick and bag it. The yield of one Chilgoza pine is about 3-5 kg. “Preliminary washing and drying are also essential. We imported machines for washing from China a few years ago, which means a great convenience,” mentioned pine nut picker Altaf Hussain.

The way ahead of luxurious snack: Pakistani pine nuts in China

After that, China-made machines will help grade these pine nuts. “The grading machine purchased from China can classify the raw pine nuts into three grades-A, B and C, which helps us classify the quality more accurately,” said Zahoor Shah, a Pakistani pine nut trader, who was echoed by Muhammad Rafique, a Karachi pine nut exporter, “Chinese importers have high requirements, and A-grade products are always the most popular for them. Due to their sharp rise in demand in recent years, the price of pine nuts is also rising year by year, especially those highest quality products. I’ve been in this business for 35 years, from my point of view, Bannu produces one of the best quality pine nuts. About 20 percent of dealers in Bannu sell all their goods to the Chinese.”

In the 2020-2021 production season (July 2020-June 2021), data from the International Nut and Dried Fruit Council (INC) showed that the output of pine nuts in Pakistan reached 2,800 tons, 1.9 times that of the 2019-2020 season. Pakistan has become the fifth largest producer of pine nuts in the world.

The way ahead of luxurious snack: Pakistani pine nuts in China

Export status and cooperation prospects to China

Even in the 2020-2021 production season, which was severely affected by the epidemic, Pakistani pine nuts have maintained a considerable export volume to China. 

However, the epidemic still had a negative impact on the local market prices. “The land road is blocked from time to time, and the road conditions are not good. Recently, our pine nuts can only be sold at about 2,000 rupees per kilogram in the domestic market,” said Mir Afzal, a Pakistani pine nut trader.

“Thanks to the direct flights between China and Pakistan, air freight has been reduced a lot in 2021. In the future, as the epidemic further eases and flights gradually increase, air freight will still be the best choice,” said the person in charge of a Chinese pine nuts processing enterprise. And according to the second-phase protocol of the China-Pakistan Free Trade Agreement, Pakistani pine nuts can be exported to China with zero tariff. Previously, it requires  a 36 percent tariff, about Rmb10  per kilogram. The new policy will greatly benefit pine nuts industry in both countries.

With a bumper harvest and an increase in exports to China, why is the price of Pakistani pine nuts still high? Yar Muhammad Niaz, CEO of Hangzhou Nazi Food Co., Ltd., believes that in addition to the impact of the epidemic in the past two years, it is mainly due to China's soaring market demand. “The Chinese market has a growing demand for mid-to-high-end snack foods. Just like sunflower seeds, Pakistani pine nuts are a hot commodity that is sought after,” Xin Mindong also emphasized.

In the current Chinese market, Pakistani pine nuts are also facing fierce competition from Afghanistan. In addition to Pakistan, Chilgoza pine is also widely distributed in eastern Afghanistan. Currently, 80 percent of Afghanistan's pine nuts are exported to China. According to  INC, China is the second largest consumer of pine nuts. Pine nuts from Afghanistan entered China's live broadcast room in 2021 and sold out 26 tons within 2 hours. Facing competition, deep processing may be a promising cooperation direction. “If the governments of the two countries can cooperate deeply and further transfer the industry chain to Pakistan to process pine nuts and pine nut oil, it will be of great benefit to local employment, and the export of high value-added products to China can also create more foreign exchange for Pakistan,” said Ma Xiaoyan, Senior Investment Adviser at the Pakistan China Joint Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

The way ahead of luxurious snack: Pakistani pine nuts in China

Moreover, it is also urgent to promote the ecological protection of the pine forest to achieve sustainable development. Syed Azeem Shah, a pine nut exporter, indicates that the lack of ecological management and protection of the origin and uncontrolled picking will lead to a gradual decline in production. “Some people pick pine nuts in summer and autumn, while cut down or burn pine trees in winter, which is very shortsighted and ignorant. The forestry department must realize that ecological protection and afforestation are the top priorities. In our main producing area Chilas, where has a vast plateau land, but the plants are relatively sparse. We can increase the density of pine tree planting step by step. Although Chilgoza pine requires a unique high-altitude ecological environment and grows very slowly, it will undoubtedly be a long-term plan for the benefit of future generations.”

“Besides, in the process of picking, it is also common to break branches casually. If we can cooperate with Chinese factories to ask them to provide us with more scientific collection tools, it will be of great benefit,” Syed Azeem Shah suggested. “Without a doubt, Pine nut industry is a promising sunshine industry, and Chinese companies can provide various picking and processing equipment”, Xin summed up.

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