New Approaches to a Sustainable Vanilla
What solutions are available to industry as
concerns grow about the traditional supply
Rick Brownell, Virginia Dare
The world’s most popular flavor, vanilla, shows no sign of relinquishing that title anytime soon. Global consumption of vanilla beans has more than doubled since bottoming
out in 2004 and is now well in excess of 2,000 metric tons per
year. Yet, there are very real concerns about the long-term
sustainability of this important food ingredient.
Concerns about Sustainability in the Traditional
Vanilla Supply Chain
The price paid to farmers for green vanilla beans has been
so low in recent years that roughly 80% of the world’s supply
now comes from one country, Madagascar. With an average
family income of about $350 per year and few alternatives,
the Malagasy farmers continue to grow vanilla beans despite
receiving only about $0.01 for every dollar spent on retail vanilla
extract. Meanwhile, in growing regions such as Indonesia, India,
Mexico and Papua New Guinea, farmers have largely abandoned
vanilla for more lucrative endeavors. As a result, the vanilla
industry is increasingly dependent on Madagascar.
In Madagascar, the traditional supply chain for vanilla is
extremely complex and inherently unstable. Vanilla bean production is entirely based on a cottage industry. There are no
plantations on which economies of scale can be utilized for
better efficiency and lower costs. The industry is completely
reliant on rural, impoverished farmers who have been marginalized. Lacking the knowledge and resources to transform green
vanilla beans into cured beans ready for extraction, they have
been reduced to selling green beans to collectors and traders
at commodity prices.
This lack of curing knowledge leaves the farmer without any
leverage. Once harvested, green vanilla beans must begin the
curing process within a few days or they will rot and become
worthless. Farmers have attempted to delay the decomposition
of beans by burying them or sealing them in vacuum packaging.
But these methods result in the formation of undesirable off
notes, and these beans are generally rejected by knowledgeable
buyers. As a result, the farmer is forced to sell green beans at
whatever price the buyer is willing to offer, reasonable or not.
After the green beans leave the farm, they go through a
series of intermediate steps in the supply chain before they
are ready for consumer products. They are cured (a lengthy,
labor-intensive process), packed, transported to ports, exported
and, finally, extracted in countries where the end markets exist.
These steps add significant increases to the ultimate cost of
vanilla extracts and flavors. More importantly, traceability back
to the farm becomes next to impossible within the traditional
vanilla supply chain.
Recognizing the vulnerability of this key ingredient, flavor
houses have embraced the need for a new supply chain model
to ensure the sustainability of vanilla. One area of innovation
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With an average family income of about $350 per year and few alternatives, the
Malagasy farmers continue to grow vanilla beans despite receiving only about
$0.01 for every dollar spent on retail vanilla extract.