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Field Notes: Vanilla In Crisis

A growing global demand, coupled with a decline in the production of top quality vanilla beans is making the ethical sourcing of this important ingredient a challenge for all, writes Emilia Dudek

I’m sure that if you have any interest in perfumery, cosmetics or you just love ice cream you probably know that the availability of Vanilla Beans has decreased dramatically over the last few years.

 

Prices started rising in 2015 when many food manufacturers switched from synthetic Vanillin to Vanilla beans extract. (It’s so fashionable now to add natural materials to the product to achieve ‘clean’ labels)

 

We - the  consumers - love to know that we are getting products with natural ingredients but the real question is: do we know anything about the reality behind the sourcing of these natural ingredients?

 

The current trend to source natural vanilla from vanilla beans has effected an increase in global demand, as well as driving prices up to an unprecedented level. In 2013, you could purchase 1 kg of beans for around $30, in 2017 this had risen to over $600. And although this sounds like great opportunity for  Vanilla farmers this has not generally been the case.

 

Weather conditions in Madagascar – which is responsible for 80-85% of global vanilla beans production – have not been favourable for farmers or vanilla users.

The 2015-2016 cyclone season destroyed many Vanilla plantations and put many farmers in an extremely difficult position.

 

Uganda, Indonesia and Comoros Island have all tried to increase their production in order to help maintain the global supply but it takes at least three to four years for vines to become productive and the quality of the beans is a big concern in  today’s market.

 

Getting vanilla beans to market is much more complicated that just collecting the pods. Each flower needs to be pollinated by hand during a narrow time frame just after the flower’s opening. And it takes between eight and nine months for each blossom to become a green vanilla pod.

 

Later the beans need to be cured (this step takes a minimum of three months – up to 9 months for the best quality) Then the beans need to be stored in good conditions as they become mouldy very easily if stored incorrectly.

 

Each vine gives an average of 1kg of Vanilla beans, however after curing this yields just 200-300 grams of beans. In order to get good vanilla content and moisture in the beans, it is critical that ALL the processes (pollination, harvest and curing) need to be done expertly and with great care.

 

Unfortunately, as the market has become increasingly tense, the theft of immature beans on the vine has becoming increasingly widespread. Our supplier in Uganda has reported that last year, (2017) three people were killed over vanilla beans thefts.

 

These immature beans are also badly cured in a new process that involves a much shorter processing time followed by storage in vacuum packs, giving rise to serious quality control problems.

 

We use Vanilla Absolute in many of our fragrances and we cannot purchase any immature or badly cured beans because their poor quality will affect the smell of our final products.

 

Finding good quality beans from ethical sources at a reasonable price is a huge challenge in today’s market. Short supply, high demand, adverse weather conditions, theft and a general poor quality led to the Ugandan Government getting involved in Vanilla imports as of last year. It has tried to improve the situation by putting regulations in place for all Vanilla traders - regulations which the Government hopes will help stabilize the vanilla market by 2020.

 

Vanilla growers around the world have been planting more vines in order to satisfied market demand.  We hope for the best for the 2019 harvest.

 

Emilia Dudek is a member of the Lush Ethical Buying team

 

Vanilla harvesting

Our supplier in Uganda has reported that last year, (2017) three people were killed over vanilla beans thefts

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