If you don’t have a favorite plant biologist, you will soon: his name is Tom Molnar, and he’s spent the past two decades doing what he can to prevent a worldwide Nutella shortage. Molnar has dedicated more than 20 years to developing a hazelnut tree that is resistant to a common disease and hardy enough to withstand the harsh winters of the northeast and Canada. His efforts could eventually lead to more hazelnut trees, more hazelnuts and, by extension, more sweet, sweet Nutella.
Molnar, who is also a professor at Rutgers University, says that the long-rumored hazelnut shortage is a little overhyped, but without an increase to hazelnut production, it could still happen. “There’s really not enough hazelnuts to have that demand be met as it grows, so the big candy companies are sort of scrambling because they know that in five or six or seven years from now, there’s not going to be enough hazelnuts to meet the demand,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Right now, commercially viable hazelnut trees are predominantly grown in Turkey and in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, but Molnar is trying to change that. One of the biggest issues facing would-be hazelnut farmers in the northeast is a fungus called the Eastern Filbert Blight, which has no cure and will eventually kill any tree that is infected. Some varieties of the European hazelnut are resistant to the fungus and Molnar has spent most of his adult life – and has grown thousands of trees – attempting to find a blight-immune variety that can also produce high-quality hazelnuts.
Later this year, farmers in the United States will be planting the first crop of Molnar’s miracle tree, known as the Rutgers hazelnut. (“We’re really close to releasing plants,” he told the Inquirer). That could have an impact that goes well beyond those farms, and could be a reason why news outlets could finally retire any headline involving the words “Nutella shortage.” It also might prevent price increases or declining quality in our fave hazelnut-related products; in 2015, after terrible weather in Turkey affected the country’s hazelnut crops, Nutella cut the percentage of hazelnuts in its signature spread from 17% to 13% and Ritter Sport hiked the price of its hazelnut chocolate bar by 8%. (At least one employee of Ferrero, Nutella’s parent company, denied the hazelnut decrease, insisting that the spread had always been 13% hazelnut).
Molnar has previously estimated that, within a decade, Nutella could be made with hazelnuts produced from his Rutgers trees. After France endured a weekend of Nutella-related fistfights after one supermarket put it on sale, we’d hate to see what would happen after a shortage.
Keep up the good work, Professor Molnar. And hurry!