Madagascar's Vanilla Situation Is Anything but Plain

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CC BY 2.0. Jules

Now that vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world, farmers need to rely on armed guards to protect crops.

The vanilla situation is getting more dire by the day in Madagascar. The world's top vanilla producer has been tightly squeezed by a combination of factors, from cyclone damage to increased demand for natural flavoring from food companies. But now, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, the situation is getting violent.

Vanilla growers have hired guards and are sleeping in their fields, tending bonfires by night, in order to deter thieves. Thefts are up because of the enormous increase in value of vanilla pods. At $600 per kilogram, vanilla is now worth more than its weight in silver; only saffron is still more expensive. At least four thieves have been killed by angry farmers.

While a cyclone destroyed a chunk of Madagascar's vanilla crop earlier this year, creating anxiety about shortages, it's mostly the growing demand for natural flavorings that has affected the market. Customers no longer want artificial flavorings in foods, and their pressure has led large food companies, such as Nestlé, McDonald's, and Hershey Co., to change their ingredients lists.

While customers' motivations makes sense, it does not take into consideration how vanilla is produced. WSJ cites Jean Christophe Peyre, a vanilla producer and exporter based in Madagascar. He says that food manufacturers "have mostly forgotten that the production of vanilla in Madagascar is a craft work that cannot withstand a high world demand." One source says that "less than 1% of vanilla flavor comes from actual vanilla orchids. With demand on the upswing, trade in the coveted flavor is out of balance."

vanilla pod

Dinesh Valke -- A vanilla pod/CC BY 2.0

Indeed, the production process is lengthy, involved, and difficult to streamline. Vanilla plants, from the orchid family, take three months to start producing beans and they flower for only one day, at which point they must be pollinated by hand. If this opportunity is lost, the flower dies. In Mexico, where vanilla originated, the pollination is done by native bees, but Madagascar lacks these little helpers.

"About nine months after pollination, farmers pick the green pods and dry them in a complicated process that includes blanching the beans, sweating them and drying them in the sun, generally over another three to six months."
vanilla beans drying

MaxPixel -- Vanilla beans drying in the sun in Mauritius/Public Domain

Lately, farmers have been picking their vanilla before it's ripe, just to lessen the chance of its being stolen. This, however, reduces the quality and quantity:

"It normally takes 5 to 6 pounds of green vanilla beans to make 1 pound of cured beans," says Craig Nielsen, vice president of sustainability at Nielsen-Massey Vanillas Inc., a family-owned manufacturer in Waukegan, Ill. "If they are picked early, it can take 8 to 10 pounds."

Demand will eventually catch up, once plants have 3 to 4 years to mature, then prices will adjust accordingly. But what's unfortunate about all this is that the farmers miss out on the high times, receiving only about one-third of market price. Most of the profit goes to middlemen. You can avoid this by buying Fairtrade-certified vanilla. Nielsen-Massey sells it in USA and Ndali Vanilla in UK.

You can also buy vanilla from other countries, such as Tahiti, Mexico, or Indonesia. The vanilla's flavor isn't as prized as that from Madagascar, but supporting these different economies helps to grow the industry across the globe, resulting in more vanilla for all, at the end of the day.