for rice purchases is provided by the increased revenue earned
by farmers from the value added through curing their own
Establishing Quality Guidelines
Beyond curing, the alliance is helping to establish quality
guidelines for vanilla beans and instructing farmers how to
achieve them through better practices in cultivation and curing.
Traditionally, loosely defined grades of cured beans have been
sold, despite the fact that, historically, quality grades have not
been formally implemented or recognized at the farm level.
Quality specifications will help minimize the commoditization
of green vanilla beans and maximize their value.
The Potential of Price Supports
Prior to 1994, the Madagascar government tightly controlled
the vanilla industry. Despite the objections of the World Bank
and the International Monetary Fund, the government’s involvement went a long way toward maintaining the availability and
quality of vanilla beans at very stable prices. Since deregulation,
the industry has been subjected to wide swings in availability,
pricing and, to a lesser extent, quality, which pose a significant
threat to the sustainability of vanilla. Short of a return to regulating the industry, there are other actions that could be taken to
Many agricultural products throughout the world are assisted
by various supports and subsidies. Conceived and managed
properly, price supports would be a boon for vanilla growers.
Unfortunately, this might depend on whether or not the
Madagascar government can overcome its current dysfunctional state. Another approach could be the maintenance of
an industry-sponsored, -funded and -managed strategic supply
of vanilla beans. From a practical standpoint, either of these
approaches is eminently feasible, because cured vanilla beans
have a very long shelf life under proper storage conditions.
An Investment in the Future
In general, sustainability of agricultural products involves
striking a balance among the sometimes disparate requirements of consumers, natural resources, and the livelihoods
of farmers, their families and their communities. The related
requirement for traceability helps to ensure sustainability by
allowing verification that appropriate practices and controls
are in place. The complexity of the traditional vanilla supply
chain has historically made traceability difficult and largely
nonexistent. However, new initiatives and approaches, like
those outlined above, offer real solutions for traceability and
The ideas outlined above are not without associated costs.
However, those costs should be viewed as investments in training, infrastructure, supplies and support, which will ultimately
lead to greater efficiencies and/or value creation. Implemented
and managed properly, once the initial investment has been
made, the ongoing costs of sustainability can actually be lower
than those in an unsustainable environment. Hopefully, consumers will ultimately view an investment in the future of vanilla
farmers as an investment in their own futures as well.
To purchase a copy of this article or others,
comparison, vanilla is extremely environmentally friendly since
it is a climbing vine that relies on other trees for support and a
forest canopy for shade.
Finally, these initiatives fail to account for other critical
threats to vanilla sustainability. One such threat is disease, in
particular, Fusarium, an opportunistic root fungus. Another is
the centralization of vanilla bean production in a very small geographic region, specifically the northeast corner of Madagascar
known as the SAVA, named for the key towns of Sambava,
Antalaha, Vohémar and Andapa. A third is the development
of non-vanilla-bean-based flavorings that mimic the flavor and
aroma of vanilla extract.
Naturally derived vanillin made from rice hulls and other
non-vanilla-bean-based materials are increasingly being marketed as “natural vanilla flavors,” despite the U.S. Food and
Drug Administration’s ( www.fda.gov) position that they should
not. More recently, so-called synbio (synthetic biology) technology is being developed to produce vanillin by genetically
programming yeasts at laboratory and, ultimately, industrial
scale. Widespread utilization of these products in foods and
beverages could have a devastating impact on the livelihood of
vanilla bean growers and their families.
The development of non-vanilla-bean-based flavorings does
not result simply from the efforts of biotechnologists engineering new pathways to chemical structures. Rather, it is driven
by the quest to provide consumers with foods and beverages at
competitive (i.e., lower) prices. Ultimately, the consumer has
to decide whether or not to accept the costs associated with
sustainability. To date, that hasn’t always been the case.
New Approaches to a Sustainable Vanilla Supply Chain
While the traditional vanilla supply chain does not foster sustainability of vanilla bean production, there are other approaches
that may provide better solutions than those discussed above.
Virginia Dare, like a number of other vanilla suppliers, has
formed an alliance with an association of rural farmers and
private companies in Madagascar to produce vanilla beans in a
manner that ensures sustainability of not only the product, but
also the livelihood of the growers and the natural resources in
their local environment.
Recognizing that value is added to vanilla primarily in the
curing process, the alliance is aimed at providing vanilla growers
with the tools and training to cure vanilla beans themselves.
An extensive network of field workers has been employed to
provide curing supplies and knowledge to farmers and their
cooperatives. While rudimentary in nature, proper curing of
vanilla beans nevertheless requires a significant amount of
expertise and experience. Historically, farmers have lacked this
knowledge and were forced to sell green beans within a few
days of harvest, or risk them becoming worthless. By learning
to cure properly, the farmer not only adds value, but also gains
leverage in the market.
Proper curing of vanilla beans includes a lengthy conditioning phase in secure warehouses in which they can be protected
from rain and theft. Virginia Dare has provided assistance in
building secure storage facilities, which can be used for storage
of vanilla beans and rice in between periods of harvest. Funding