The Trump administration’s sloppily implemented immigration ban sent shockwaves and incited protests throughout the world, and though the executive order is currently on hold thanks to a federal appeals court, the future of it is uncertain. Beyond the immediate and obvious consequences of closing the borders to travelers and emigrants from seven countries — Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, and Syria — including families being torn apart and students being prevented from returning to school, some are also looking ahead to the potential economic consequences of such a ban.
New York-based spice purveyor Lior Lev Sercarz, who owns a retail shop called La Boite and has supplied top chefs such as Eric Ripert and New Orleans’ Alon Shaya, worries that an immigration ban could put a damper on his industry. “I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen in the near or far future, but [the immigration ban] will definitely have an effect on the spice industry if continued,” he says. Sercarz worries an immigration ban could also “lead to a broader ban like we’ve seen with Iran, where products were just not allowed to be imported into the U.S.” — potentially leading to dwindling spice stocks, production being shifted to other countries, and/or price increases for consumers.
“Think of sesame seeds coming from Sudan,” Sercarz says. “Sudan is a pretty major producer globally of sesame. There’s also domestic and Central American sesame, but if all of a sudden Sudanese sesame stops being available on the market, it’s going to raise prices. Everybody still wants their sesame bagel in the morning, and tahini and sesame oil and whatnot.”
The U.S. spice industry has grown as consumer tastes become more sophisticated and diverse, and to accommodate the demands of an increasingly diverse population. In 2016, the U.S. imported more than 500,000 metric tons of spices worth $1.9 billion dollars — a number that’s grown year-over-year. While a few spices such as paprika and allspice are grown domestically, 80 percent of the American spice supply is brought in from other countries.
While Indonesia and India make up the lion’s share of those imports, numerous other countries also grow and export spices to the U.S. — including several countries on the Trump administration’s ban list. Iran, for instance, is known for producing cumin, sumac, and perhaps most famously, saffron; Sudan is a rich source of chilies and sesame seeds (and their byproducts, tahini and sesame oil); and Syria, though most famous for Aleppo pepper, also produces anise, coriander, and caraway.
While it’s hard to say exactly how much immigration contributes to the current U.S. spice trade — or exactly how much suspending immigration would hurt it — open migration is good for trade. The presence of immigrants stimulates trade between their host and home countries.
Under a travel ban, spice brokers who typically travel back and forth between the U.S. and the countries in question to do business could be barred from doing so. Tom Erd, a second-generation spice merchant who owns a small chain of Midwestern shops called the Spice House, notes that due to the nature of the business, it’s essential for spice traders to be able to travel freely.
“Brokers are constantly moving from country to country talking to the producers, the farmers, the shippers — if they can’t get around, there’s going to be a lot of problems,” he says. “A lot of these deals can’t be done on cell phones, they can’t be done over email. You have to see this stuff [in person]. There are different names for the various spices, there’s language problems. So it’s essential. A lot of times they’re traveling through those countries [on the ban list]; the whole Nile Valley produces a lot of spices, so you might go from Egypt down through Sudan down through Ethiopia.”
For evidence of how trade policies can dramatically impact the spice industry, one need only look to Iran. The richest source of one of the world’s most prized spices, saffron, Iran grows as much as 94 percent of the world’s supply of the labor-intensive product, which must be harvested by hand from crocus flowers. In 2012, the U.S. and other nations implemented an economic embargo on Iran in an attempt to dissuade the nation from pursuing a nuclear program, preventing businesses from entering into most forms of trade with Iran.
That meant Iranian exports of spices to the U.S. dropped to virtually zero; instead, American spice importers sourced the wildly expensive substance from other countries such as its neighbor Afghanistan, as well as Turkey or Spain. The lifting of sanctions in 2016 meant a shift in that spice’s trade — in 2016, the U.S. imported more than $300,000 worth of saffron directly from Iran, compared to zero over the prior five years. An immigration ban could impart further roadblocks for the saffron trade.
“The ban [on Iranian imports] had been lifted somewhat but now with this travel ban, things look uncertain,” says Sercarz. The new administration has already clashed with Iran, and Trump has shown he’s not shy about restricting free trade to achieve political ends, as evidenced by his proposal of a 20 percent tariff on Mexican imports to fund a border wall.
But the strongest example of how the spice trade can be impacted by political conflict involves war-torn Syria. Aleppo pepper — which is not in fact a peppercorn, but rather a dried, crushed chile — is named for Syria’s largest city, and several years of the civil war that’s killed thousands of people and produced millions of refugees has largely destroyed production of the spice. In 2011, the year its civil war erupted, Syria exported nearly $10 million of spices to America. By 2016, that figure had dropped to just over $2.5 million.
“We don’t have so much Aleppo pepper right now, since the war started,” says Jing Tio, a second-generation spice trader who co-owns San Francisco specialty foods boutique Le Sanctuaire. “Right now we’re pretty much at almost zero as far as inventory. We are moving on to other products, just because it’s become so hard to get.” All is not lost for Aleppo pepper, though: Some Syrian spice producers have moved their operations north across the border to Turkey, and at least one small grower here in the U.S. is also cultivating the the fruity, spicy chilies that have become beloved by chefs.
Though the fate of one’s spice rack may seem trivial in light of the human consequences of such a ban, to Sercarz, it holds deeper meaning. “Twenty or 30 years ago I don't think that anybody would have been bothered about saffron or sesame or Aleppo, but maybe it’s through these products that we learn about the world and what's happening,” says Sercarz. “We learn about Yemenite cuisine and Libyan cuisine and Sudanese and Somalian food, even though most people have no idea where they are on the map.”
The spice trade has historically represented not just an exchanging of goods, but of cultures — just as an immigration and travel ban could cut off not only the commerce of cherished ingredients, it would also limit also the free exchange of people and ideas.
The latest news indicates the Trump administration is working on a new, more carefully crafted executive order that would ban immigration and refugees from the same seven predominantly-Muslim countries as the first attempt — and if that happens, the contents of our spice cabinets may be the least of our worries.
“At the end of the day, we can potentially live without saffron. We’re not going to starve,” Sercarz says. But if the immigration ban is upheld, he says, “the community here loses the value of all of these other cultures contributing to the community and expanding the horizons. It’s definitely a big loss — the cuisine, the culture, the educational value of having people from all these countries moving into the United States and adding to this great community that’s built on immigrants.”
Whitney Filloon is Eater's senior reporter.
Editor: Daniela Galarza