Natural vanilla flavoring is a product of the fruity pods of the vanilla vine, a tropical plant of the genus vanilla of the orchid family (orchidaceae ). There are many varieties, v. planifolia, v. pompona, and v. tahiiensis being the most common. Initially native to the forested highlands of Mexico, vanilla was found in other tropical areas of the globe after its transport to European colonies in Africa and Asia in the sixteenth century by explorers, botanists, priests, and colonial administrators.
The global world market for natural vanilla is approximately 1,000 metric tons, of which the United States is the largest consumer. However, the market for vanilla from vanilla beans is dwarfed by the use of synthetic vanilla, which is well over 95 percent of the total tonnage used in the global flavorings industry and approximately one hundredth of the cost of vanilla from beans. Synthetic vanillin is extracted from cloves and coal tars as well as lignin from paper processing. Although it is a safe flavoring product, vanillin as the signature component of vanilla lacks the subtlety and complexity of natural vanilla, which has additional flavor components and is much prized by home cooks, gourmet chefs, and food processors for which the designation of “real” is important to brand identity.
Vanilla orchids in their native Mexico are pollinated by hummingbirds and a species of small bee. In its other production contexts, this has led to vanilla being one of the most laborintensive crops in the world, as the orchid flowers must be hand-pollinated to produce beans. Because the flowers last for only one day, farmers must daily tend to their vanilla vines, which are generally looped upon trees that provide shade and protection. Upward of 70,000 small farmers in Madagascar make at least part of their living managing vanilla vines, which can grow to be nearly thirty-five meters in length. There is a three- to five-year time period from transplanting vanilla cuttings or seedlings until the first fruiting, and the healthy maturity of vanilla vines requires effective climbing or trellising supports that provide some shade, adequate rainwater (approximately one meter per year), stable and rich soils, and temperatures remaining above fifty degrees Fahrenheit even at the coldest part of the year. The beans take several months to develop after pollination. They are harvested while green and after harvesting are processed to mature and stabilize the flavors. This ripening process generally takes several months, and the beans are carefully tended by hand.
Until the mid-1980s Madagascar and the islands of Reunion and Cormoros off the eastern coast of Africa held a virtual monopoly on natural vanilla production. Mexico’s vanilla market collapsed at the end of the nineteenth century, with political turmoil disrupting production, and only began to reorganize in the late twentieth century. The Madagascar cartel controlled an extremely inflated price on the open world market, which provided significant revenues for the government and for exporters. Price controls included export restrictions and the occasional destruction of tons of crops to keep the market price high (as high as US$500 per kilogram). Natural vanilla is a high value–low volume crop, which makes it attractive for biotechnology innovations. Attempts to reproduce natural vanilla through tissue cloning of ripened bean cells seemed to be making progress until new producers, particularly Indonesia and China but also smaller producers such as Uganda, Thailand, Tahiti, and Kenya, broke the monopoly of the Madagascar-based cartel and drove the world market price of vanilla to low levels (as low as US$20 per kilogram). Madagascar remains the largest exporter of vanilla. The world price continues to fluctuate as weather and the emergence of other producing nations interacts with changing demand, but it generally brings about US$50 per kilogram.
The control that the flavor industry maintains in grading and certifying vanilla as real versus synthetic, in labeling laws, and in consumer preferences for natural products are all part of the vanilla industry’s complexity. When natural vanilla prices have been consistently high, there are many more attempts at using biotechnology to produce substitutes, old-fashioned attempts to cut or dilute real vanilla with synthetic vanilla, and ventures for new natural production. Like other botanical products from developing nations, vanilla plants have been a focus of bioprospecting, from taking cuttings out of the country to mapping the genome of valued plants.
Consumer interest in products for which the global commodity chain is used to demonstrate authenticity is part of the new market for vanilla. Knowledge of the origins of a given crop with a particular farmer, through a documented set of links between processors and distributors, adds both cachet and value to vanilla products. Because the small farmers who labor to grow vanilla bear nearly all of the risks of failed crops, decreasing demand, or bad weather yet receive the smallest part of the profits collected by exporters and distributors, there is also a growing interest in fair-trade vanilla. The vanilla orchid is such an environmentally sensitive plant that it fits well into models of ecologically sustainable development. With attention to issues of fair trade and the distribution of risks and profits from vanilla sales, vanilla is sometimes seen as a model for an integrated social and environmentally sustainable production. However, the emergence of multiple small producers in tropical nations that hope to provide revenues for small farmers threatens to again lower the market value of natural vanilla.
SEE ALSO Agricultural Industry; Food; Industry; Monopoly; Trade
Ecott, Tim. 2005. Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid. New York: Grove.
Gereffi, Gary, and Miguel Korzeniewicz, eds. 1993. Commodity Chains and Global Capitalism. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Rain, Patricia. 2004. Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor and Fragrance. New York: Tarcher/Penguin.
Jennifer L. Croissant