Sustainable Vanilla in Madagascar

Written by Jackie Lopez ’18, Sustainability Collaborative Summer Intern

This past spring, as my peers and I walked around the streets of the bustling capital city of Antananarivo (Tana for short), we were frequently approached by merchants selling everything from earbuds to intricate wood carvings. “Be careful when you are purchasing vanilla,” our advisor warned. As our academic advisor explained, this past year was an especially challenging one for the vanilla industry after the hit of Cyclone Enawo in Madagascar. A recent story on NPR’s Morning Edition went on to say, the world is experiencing “a vanilla crisis.”

Vanilla comes from the pods of an orchid, photo source: Wikimedia

Vanilla comes from the pods of an orchid that is commonly referred to as a vanilla bean, and with its complex aroma, flavor, and variety it is used by professional chefs and amateur bakers alike. It is believed that vanilla originated in what is now modern day Mexico and Guatemala, but the Bourbon vanilla was introduced to the island of Madagascar towards the end of the 19th century. Since then, the northeastern region of the island has the climate conditions and labor required to create one of the highest vanilla outputs in the world. With an estimated 3,100 tons of vanilla produced this past year, Madagascar accounts for approximately 41% of the world’s vanilla production.

However, the production of vanilla is anything but sweet. As one of the most labor intensive foods in the world, vanilla production in Madagascar is difficult, time consuming and treads the fine line of “fair trade.” Since there are no natural pollinators in Madagascar, the plant must be pollinated individually by hand, and can take anywhere between four and five years before the orchid produces any seed (Charles 2017). That does not take into account the time and labor required to pick, dry, soak, and then process the vanilla that we can conveniently purchase at a CVS, Whole Foods, or Trader Joe’s.

Woman sorting vanilla in Sambava Madagascar, photo source: Wikimedia

As explained by celebrity chef and globe trotter Anthony Bourdain, in Madagascar “vanilla is expensive, but labor is cheap.” A recent report by the Dutch organization, Fair Foods, found that approximately 75% of vanilla farmers live on less than a dollar a day. Although there are consumers back in the US that are willing to pay more for organic, fair-trade vanilla, it is difficult to efficiently track vanilla back down the supply chain. Vanilla farming and production is a lucrative business in Madagascar, and one in which farmers can find themselves living in constant fear of theft of their crops and crippling poverty as a result of a loss income. So although organizations and companies may place efforts into promoting fair-trade production, there is currently no means through which exporters can identify stolen vanilla.

While I stayed in Madagascar this spring, vanilla was a hot topic over dinner with my host family. Just as my advisor warned, my host mother explained that currently vanilla was not only expensive, but also low in quality. Although there is no cookie-cutter solution to the difficult and complex labor issues surrounding vanilla production in Madagascar, there are efforts from the US and other entities to promote a sustainable growth and improvement in the industry.