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Victoria Rielly
Freshman Inquiry
March 11th 2015
Chemical or Natural?
A staple in many kitchens and restaurants, both vanilla beans and extract are used in a variety of
dishes. This product is so commonly used that many are surprised when they learn about the costs
involved in importing and growing it. Vanilla is the second most expensive spice to produce, second
only to saffron because of it's extreme rarity and complicated growing process. Because of this, the
vanilla market is vulnerable to threats from a chemical synthetic flavor, vanillin, which is much cheaper
and definitely not as labor-intensive as caring for the natural beans. This synthetic product has had an
impact on the native growing communities, especially in regions such as Madagascar, where it has
reduced the local growers' profit and made it hard for some farms to properly pay their workers and
keep up to date with sustainability standards.
Looking at it as a commodity, vanilla beans have three primary growing spots, Madagascar,
Indonesia, and China. Madagascar is by far the largest, exporting about 3,000-3,500 tons per year,
Indonesia isn't too far, averaging about 3,000 tons. China takes third, exporting approximately 1,000
tons per year. Mexico is also a large producer of vanilla beans, but tends to have periods of decreased
crop size, making it unreliable. In any case, the market is only divided into thirds or fourths, making it
easy for one region to influence price fluctuations and try to turn a larger profit than it's counterparts.
This concentrated market is also dangerous because vanilla takes so much care to produce, a few
simple mistakes and a whole crop can be ruined, the market may seem rather stable, but it really isn't as
safe and steady as it seems on the outside.
As far as the spice goes, vanilla is used to add flavor to numerous foods, from dessert to hot

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drinks. People think of vanilla as a modern flavouring, but it was pre-Columbian peoples in Mexico the Mayan and Aztec civilizations - who first realized the potential of vanilla. (Cotton). Today, it's
commonly used to enhance baked goods, such as cakes, cookies, and other pastries. It's also widely
utilized in the production of ice cream and soft drink products. Coca-Cola is one example of an active
consumer of vanilla flavoring. From the basic description and price, vanilla seems like a material only
bought in bulk and used by large chains or corporations, however, home chefs often use raw beans,
extract, or vanilla bean powder for simple things such as flavoring milk, sugar, and batters. Heather
McClees encourages buyers to spend the extra money on authentic vanilla by saying Real vanilla has
an almost smokey flavor, with a depth that cheap vanilla simply cant replace.
The process of growing vanilla involves lots of hand-on work and care. The vanilla plant only
grows easily within ten to twenty degrees of the equator, in a tropical and humid environment, which
makes the task of finding a good climate difficult. One of the best places to grow vanilla is the island of
Madagascar, but regions such as Indonesia, China, and Mexico can produce acceptable crops as well. It
takes approximately three to five years from the initial planting to the point where the vanilla orchid
will be able to produce bean pods. Once the plant has been pollinated, it will take an extra ten months
for it to produce a pod that's ready for harvest. Because of this long blooming period, farms have to be
carefully tended to ensure they have a full crop each year.
Depending on the climate and conditions, some crops require being hand-pollinated, which
takes a lot of careful labor and time. After the plant has bloomed and formed pods, they have to be
collected by hand, and set out on mats to dry and release the vanilla flavor. Jamie McIntosh describes
this lengthly process in her journal on caring for orchids.Every day for six weeks, you must wrap the
beans in a blanket at night to facilitate moisture condensation on the pods. During the day, place the
beans on trays in the sun, or under a heat lamp indoors. Following this sweating process, you should
dry the now brown and shriveled pods in a dark, dry place for an additional three months. It's a

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process that takes plenty of consideration on the part of the growers, laborers, and bean-curers, and is
very centered on the handiwork of what is usually an entire small village of people, all doing their part
to keep the vanilla farm running.
One major problem with these farms is sustainability. Noah Jackson, a representative of the
Rainforest Alliance, traveled to one of these farming villages in Madagascar to observe their practices
and promote rainforest conservation among the native people. In the documentary he applauded how
the farmers didn't cut down trees without good reason, and instead used the trunks to support vanilla
orchid vines. This integration of farm and nature was one aspect he liked about the process, another
was how everyone in the village he visited seemed educated on the rainforest and it's many layers, and
even though they may not have been up to speed on current sustainable farming, they certainly were
willing to learn.
However he did express concern about creeks and rivers being dangerously redirected. Jackson
also found evidence of severe erosion of hillsides where underbrush had been cleared to make room for
the vanilla plant. Both the erosion and overflowing creeks are well-known causes of landslides, and he
and other conservationalists fear that if the situation goes unchecked, devastating landslides could ruin
the village and vanilla plants all at once. The overall assessment was that the farmers do need to update
many of their practices and equipment to meet common global production standards. Though he did
understand why it may be hard for them to find the proper funding to do this, given how little a profit
these growers make with each crop.
Sustainability issues aside, there's another key problem with vanilla, the price. In 2009, growers
in Madagascar rallied for a minimum set price of the product, in order to even out the market and gain
them an acceptable profit for all the hard work that goes into each crop. The producers want a floor
price to be set at around $27 a kilogram, Claude Andreas, President of Madagascars National Platform
of Vanilla Exporters, said on Aug. 24 in a telephone interview. (Corbett). Prior to this demand for a

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minimum price, the cost per kilogram of vanilla could vary from ten to twenty-eight dollars.
The manpower and time that each worker puts into a crop of vanilla seems like it would warrant
a decent amount of money, for all the labor these growers have to do, but the wages are actually far
below a proper living amount. Ben Wedeman from CNN sums up the grim situation in his article, Jean
Bruno is one such farmer and earns little over $1.50 a day. He told CNN: "Yes, it is difficult to grow, to
tend it day after day. But the worst part is the price, it's miserable." He, like many other farmers, are
finding it more and more difficult to get by on these wages. Later on in the article he goes on to say that
many regional farmers, his friends and neighbors, have simply quit producing vanilla because they
were unable to make ends meet.
To combat this, a minimum price was set, and from 2010-2012 the average price of vanilla
remained around twenty-five dollars per kilogram. The market was steady and stable, until Mexican
growers had a poor farming year in 2012. Because of this, Indonesia and Madagascar, the two largest
exporters of bulk vanilla beans, were free to set the price wherever they pleased. This freedom was
based largely on the principle of supply and demand. The supply was lower than usual, but the demand
still as strong as ever, so in order to turn a larger profit, these two giants raised the price of vanilla to
approximately thirty dollars per kilogram. The vanilla market does not tend to move often, but when it
does, price spikes can be extreme. Back in 2003, for example, the price of vanilla soared to $550/kg
after a hurricane hit Madagascar and destroyed some of the crop. Julia Glotz used a cautionary tone in
her article Because vanilla production is concentrated in so few countries any change to crops - no
matter how small - can set the market on edge.
In addition to all the internal reasons for the fluctuating market, vanilla is also being threatened
by an outside source, synthetic vanillin. It doesn't have as big of an impact on the price as, say, a natural
disaster. But it does influence the market in a subtle way. While synthetic vanillin is extremely common
in households because of it's appealing price, restaurants and major food producers still tend to use

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natural vanilla because of the difference in flavor and to preserve their public image. Because of this,
vanilla producers aren't concerned about drastic short-term losses, since their profits have been
relatively steady, but many are expecting synthetic flavors to become more and more accurate, and that
may tip the scale to push away much of the existing natural vanilla demand.
These predictions are not far off, either. A rather recent vanilla substitute, synthetic biology
vanilla, or synbio vanilla is already causing a stir among vanilla growers and consumers alike. This
synthetic alternative is created with yeast products and apparently has a much more accurate flavor
than typical chemical vanillin, however many are concerned that the technology used to create the
substance is untested and unsafe. The organization Friends of the Earth and its allies launched the
Campaign for Natural Vanilla and sent letters to ice cream companies asking them to commit to not
using synbio vanillaand several agreed. (Haynes).
This proves that consumers and buyers alike are still hesitant to use this new synthetic product,
so it likely poses no immediate danger to the natural growers. However, it can still be interpreted as a
sign of how things are changing, and perhaps serve as foreshadowing for what vanilla producers should
expect to see in the near future as other inexpensive yet flavorful substitutes are being developed. It is
worth noting though, that if consumers aren't educated about the existence of vanillin and synbio
vanilla, they likely won't know any better or be able to discern between them because of uninformative
labeling and the fact that they all taste very similar. Many people aren't active on the practice of
researching what every ingredient of their pre-processed food is, and corporations are aware of this,
they know that if they keep the labels small and off to the side, consumers will be none the wiser.
One shocking statistic is that approximately 95% of all 'vanilla' flavored products actually use
synthetic vanillin, and not the natural extract. Only large corporations and chains that can afford to pay
extra for the raw bulk commodity continue to use it. It's no surprise that the cost of vanilla is so low,
their markets are dwindling, and with such a large increase in chemical synthetics, it seems like the end

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of the road for the native growing villages of Madagascar. Now more than ever, it seems like there's a
risk of them becoming useless or irrelevant because nobody is willing to pay so much for pure vanilla
when alternatives taste the same and cost much less, sadly as it stands today, the growers aren't making
enough money to survive.
There is some small hope for these growers, however. Many are trying to throw their weight
into the fine culinary arts, looking for endorsements from famous chefs, and hoping that they might
start a trend that could create more demand in their shrinking market. So far there's no evidence that
this is working. The price per kilogram of vanilla has remained hovering around twenty-five dollars,
and the demand continues to shrink slowly. After many years of growing this care-intensive crop, an
increasing amount of growers in Madagascar, Mexico, and Indonesia are simply calling it quits, and
those that remain are pessimistic about the future of their commodity. Is it really worth it, spending so
much time caring for a crop that only makes a profit of $1.50 a day? Right now it's not entiely the
money keeping them in the job, but more the history aspect since many of these people, especially in
Madagascar, were raised to do this, and know nothing else.
Speaking of history, vanilla has actually been around and popular since 1500, when the Aztecs
began using it. It became known to the world when the famous conquistador, Cortez, invaded the
Aztecs and got a taste of their recepie for a hot chocolate drink. He learned the ingredients and gathered
some up to take back to his homeland. This is the story of how the vanilla orchid was first spread from
it's native lands in Mexico. From this point until the 1600s, vanilla was considered an extremely
luxurious item, and was never used in a recepie outside the chocolate drink. In 1602, a man by the
name of Hugh Morgan decided to try the vanilla flavor on it's own for the first time.
Many people experimented with vanilla flavors in cooking during this time. Later, in 1793, a
vanilla plant was smuggled out of Mexico, and into the Bourbon islands, which are just to the east of
the Madagascar mainland. The plant did take root and begin to grow, but it didn't produce the seed pods

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at a fast or reliable rate. Following other largely unsuccessful attempts to grow a dependable vanilla
crop, scientists approached the issue in 1836. One, Charles Morren, discovered that in Mexico, a small
bee had been doing most of the pollination of the orchid flowers, which are incapable of pollinating
themselves. In this new environment, the bee did not exist, so the pollination was left to other insects,
which didn't do the same quality of a job.
Now that the issue had been determined, Edmond Albious formulated an effective and fast way
to hand-pollinate the flowers. He created a bamboo toothpick-like stick to lift the thin membrane
separating the male organ (anther) from the female organ (stigma) and press the pollen against the
stigma. Now vanilla could be successfully grown in the Bourbon Islands and eventually spread to other
countries, such as Tahiti and Indonesia. (History of Vanilla). This method of hand-pollination is still in
use on vanilla farms today. From here, the viewpoint of vanilla as a luxury item began to change. As it
became readily available, people began experimenting more with it in their home baking, and
eventually developed a taste for garnishing everyday dishes with the unique flavor of the beans or
This backtracking in time from today's sad state of the market to when vanilla first became
popular shows a huge difference in how people's attitudes have shifted. Today, huge corporations that
produce deserts and pastries have been sneaking chemicals as a false vanilla flavor for years without
letting it become a well-known fact. Is it dishonest? Likely yes, but while a handful of people will get
angry and try to put an end to this, the rest of the consumers simply don't care. They still get their sweet
tooth satisfied, the food doesn't taste any different, and it can be offered at a lower and more affordable
price. While the corn syrups and artificial sweeteners contained in vanillin may create long-term health
problems, a large percentage of consumers aren't even aware of the inclusion of synthetic vanilla, let
alone what the process of making it is.
Back in Madagascar, growers still have little hope that the market will improve anytime soon,

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this is due to the popularity of synthetic vanillin, but also the fact that they are being asked to improve
their sustainability in farming. Because of how much of the demand vanillin is 'stealing' from it's
natural counterpart, these farmers don't have nearly enough money to implement all the changes
rainforest conservationists are suggesting. Earning an average of $1.50 a day makes life extremely hard
for vanilla growers, and also makes them wonder if the weeks, months, and years they spend tending to
each crop is even worth it anymore. Implementing a base price did help some, but when the base price
is so low and the intensity of labor so high, there's still something that doesn't balance out.
From the outside, vanilla seems like a safe and stable market, where every party can gain a
profit from growing and trading this expensive spice, however that's not really the case. With the
synthetic competition and internal problems in the market itself, growers are giving up their trade
because it's simply not worth it anymore. More people should purchase natural vanilla to support the
native growers and help them get back on their feet, but at the same time it's hard to convince
consumers to spend their money on a product that isn't really necessary, they could get the same flavor
from synthetic products, so why bother with the real deal when it's usually several dollars more? For
now the vanilla growers will just have to wait and see if the market picks up again, or if it'll remain
traveling along this slow downward spiral.

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Works Cited:
Braw, Elizabeth."Future of Rural Vanilla Farming at Risk as Market for Synthetic Alternative Grows."
Guardian Sustainable Business. The Guardian, 03 Mar. 2014. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.
Corbett, Christina. "Madagascar Vanilla Growers Want Set Price; Exports Threatened." Bloomberg, 26 Aug. 2009. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.
Cotton, Simon. "Vanillin." Interview by Meera Senthilingam. Chemistry in It's Element - Vanillin.
Royal Society of Chemistry. N.d. Radio. Transcript.
Glotz, Julia. "Time to secure vanilla supply, buyers warned." Grocer 31 Mar. 2012: 18. Business
Insights: Global. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.
Haynes, Karmella. "No One Should Be Afraid of Synthetic Biology-Produced Vanilla." Future Tense.
Slate, New America, University of Arizona, 04 Sept. 2014. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.
McClees, Heather. "Vanilla Versus Vanillin: What You Need to Know." One Green Planet. One Green
Planet, 31 July 2014. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.
McIntosh, Jamie. "Growing the Vanilla Bean Orchid Plant." About-Home. About, n.d. Web. 11 Mar.
Wedeman, Ben. "Is World's Largest Vanilla Market on the Verge of Collapse?"CNN. Cable News
Network, 09 July 2010. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.
"Vanilla Madagascar's National Group." Chemical Market Reporter 24 May 2004: 10. Business
Insights: Global. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.
"History Of Vanilla." Nielsen-Massey Vanillas. Nielsen-Massey, n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.
Walking the Madagascar Vanilla Trail. Prod. Noah Jackson. Rainforest Alliance, 2011.