has been the introduction of accelerated curing methods to
reduce the time and cost of curing vanilla beans. Typically, this
involves chopping the beans for uniformity and drying them
in some type of humidity and temperature-controlled oven.
This avoids the labor-intensive, time-consuming method of
traditional sun curing.
One major flaw in this approach is that the farmer continues to be marginalized. Instead of being encouraged to
improve quality and add value, their products are increasingly
commoditized. Accelerated curing essentially treats all green
vanilla beans as the same. Further, the output of cured beans
is extremely uniform. This eliminates the production of many
traditional grades of quality, each with its own flavor, aroma
Another recent innovation has been the
extraction of green vanilla beans. As with
accelerated curing methods, a higher vanillin content can be achieved with green
vanilla bean extraction than that obtained
with traditional curing. Vanillin is the most
prevalent chemical compound in vanilla
extract, but by no means the only one.
Vanillin content has a limited value in the
U.S. market, but in Europe, which accounts
for roughly 25% of global vanilla consumption, it is actually part of the regulatory
definition of vanilla extract. Higher vanillin
content, achieved through nontraditional
curing processes, could actually decrease
the demand for vanilla beans in quantity
terms, since fewer are needed to meet
the European standard for vanilla extract.
These approaches can thus hinder, rather
than help, sustainability.
Extracting at source represents a third,
relatively new strategy. However, the economics of this strategy really do not work.
For every 1 lb of vanilla beans that would
otherwise be shipped overseas, extracting
at source results in 10 lbs of single-fold
extract being shipped to end markets for
consumption. Worse, it has to be shipped as
hazardous goods since the alcohol content
makes it highly flammable. The economics work better if the extract is converted
to oleoresin at source. Unfortunately, the
flavor and aroma character of vanilla oleoresin is generally considered to be inferior
to those of vanilla extract.
Regardless of the economics or the
sensory attributes, the farmer does not
benefit from extraction at source. Extraction
and concentration of vanilla is highly capi-tal-intensive. It also requires large amounts
of clean water and alcohol. Needless to
say, the vanilla growers in Madagascar do
not have the resources to make their own
vanilla extract or oleoresin. Whatever the
advantages of extraction at source may be,
they do not accrue to the farmer.
Threats to Vanilla Bean Sustainability
In order to ensure an ongoing supply of green vanilla beans,
several alliances have recently been formed linking flavor
houses directly to vanilla growers. Recognizing the importance
of community health for sustainability, these alliances have often
included financial assistance for building schools and health
centers, planting alternative crops and purchasing rice, the
staple of rural Malagasy diet. However, history has shown that
“giveaways” are not sustainable, and for good reason.
Schools need teachers and books. Health centers require
doctors, nurses, medicine and supplies. All are in extremely
limited supply in Madagascar, and a building alone does not
provide a complete solution. Alternative crops have their own
issues, most notably the clear-cutting of natural forests. By