Vanilla Is More Expensive and Popular Than Ever

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CC BY 2.0. Brian Boucheron -- Did you know vanilla beans are the seeds of the orchid plant?

Cyclone damage, combined with growing demand for natural extract, has squeezed Madagascar's market.

Your favorite vanilla ice cream could soon become prohibitively expensive, if it hasn’t already. Ice cream makers are running out of pure vanilla flavoring after Cyclone Enawo hit Madagascar earlier this year, destroying one-third of the island’s crops. Some vanilla from the previous year’s harvest was stored and kept safe throughout the storm, but now the prices have climbed from $100 per kilogram in 2015 to an astronomical $600/kg.

This is unaffordable for the average small-scale confectionary company, and the Financial Times reports that some high-end ice cream companies have had to pull vanilla off the menu. Oddono in London is one such company, telling customers that vanilla would be back after the 2017 vanilla harvest became available. California’s Mother Moo Creamery is another, about to run out of organic vanilla for the time being. Other companies are getting by, such as JP Licks in Boston, which was “given a heads up” and able to buy 200 gallons of Madagascar vanilla in advance.

Only one percent of vanilla flavoring in foods and cosmetics comes from real vanilla, but there is growing pressure on big food companies to switch from artificial vanilla, made with petroleum, coal tar, and wood, as well as rice bran and clove oil, to pure extract. This is a good thing, but when companies like Hershey and Nestle start buying natural vanilla extract in large quantities, it squeezes the supply chain and raises prices for everyone.

Madagascar has profited greatly from the vanilla trade in recent years, with the Financial Times saying that many families are now able to build their homes with concrete, instead of traditional palm leaves, and send their children to school beyond second grade. However, unless the vanilla being purchased is certified fair-trade, it’s impossible to know whether or not the farmers are truly earning fair pay for their product.

NPR’s The Salt explains that real vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive foods on Earth. Vanilla beans are the seeds of the orchid and every single one must be fertilized by hand.

“After you harvest the seed pods, you soak each one in hot water, ‘and then you wrap it in woolen blankets for about 48 hours, and then you put it in a wooden box to sweat.’ Later, the pods are laid out to dry in the sun, but for only one hour each day. The whole process takes months. It's so time-consuming and labor-intensive that during the decade that preceded the recent run-up of prices, some farmers simply gave up. Prices for vanilla were so low, it just wasn't worth the effort.”

So, while ice cream makers are lamenting the sky-high prices and limited supply of vanilla, there are some important questions to ask, including how the farmers are surviving during this shortage. How are international buyers ensuring that poor farmers in Madagascar receive assistance in the wake of the cyclone and support to ensure renewed production in the future? This is what we should be asking our favorite ice cream companies, instead of complaining about how expensive the flavor has become.

In the meantime, the vanilla shortage is a valuable reminder of the fragility of international markets, particularly in the face of climate change. We'd better get used to it.