We all love the familiar, floral scent of vanilla. From the delicate fragrance drifting from your reed diffuser in the living room to the sweet tasting ice-cream that you bought at the beach, there’s no denying that we would be lost without it. But if vanilla and vanilla pods are used so abundantly, why are they so expensive?
If we start at the beginning, vanilla is a flower that grows on a vine and with the right support and climate it can scale the tallest trees. Originally vanilla was grown solely in Mexico, home of the native Melipona bee that pollenates the flower. Despite best efforts to encourage bee colonies to thrive in Europe to expand trade, Mexico continued to dominate the vanilla market.
It was some 300 years later in the nineteenth century that a 12-year-old slave working on a plantation in Réunion discovered a way to hand-pollinate the flowers. This was a global breakthrough for neighbouring countries such as Madagascar, that could use their fertile land to cultivate the vanilla crop.
However, growing vanilla is a labour-intensive process. When the crop flowers, pollination must take place within 24 hours. Therefore, vanilla crops are checked daily. Once the vanilla pods have been picked, there is a precise curing process to nurture the vanilla pods to ensure maximum flavour. This extensive and specialised process contributes to the high price of vanilla.
Vanilla pods also require specific conditions to grow, such as the right humidity and a certain amount of rainfall. Madagascar produces 80% of the world’s vanilla, due to its ideal conditions in northern regions such as Sava. However, due to unpredictable and extreme weather including tropical cyclones and droughts, vanilla pods are sometimes left in short supply and therefore the cost per kilo climbs.
Vanilla is a financially rewarding trade and social indifference means vanilla farmers and their families are subject to violence and attacks. Vulnerable farmers are often forced to patrol their fields overnight, yet at least 15% of the vanilla crop in Madagascar is stolen. A shortage in supply also increases vanilla’s price tag.
Such reasons contribute to vanilla’s high cost and companies therefore started to lean towards cheaper alternatives that obtained the taste artificially. In the 19th century, cheap replications wove their way into the confectionary market and appeared in cakes and biscuits manufactured by the likes of Nestle and Cadbury’s. The word ‘vanilla’ became synonymous with basic and boring.
However, over recent years UK companies have bowed to consumer pressure to support the sustainability of farming. Traceability is increasingly important, and the cooperative disallows exploitation of farmers. Therefore, manufacturers began to look towards vanilla pods to demonstrate their support of ethically produced natural products.
Furthermore, advertising campaigns contributed to a surge in popularity. 20 years ago, Haagen-Dazs depicted its vanilla ice cream as a luxurious, special treat indulged by the rich elite. The diagram on their packaging drew attention to the high-end quality of the vanilla pod.
For almost 10 years at the start of the 21st century, there was a surplus of vanilla because farmers from countries such as Papua New Guinea and Indonesia recognised a soaring demand and started growing vanilla pods. As a result, the cost per kilo plummeted and some farmers resorted to growing alternate crops. Middlemen manipulated the market by holding back vanilla, waiting for availability to decrease and cost to creep back up.
Today it is incredibly important to check the vanilla you buy because prices are premium due to labour-intensity, popularity and availability of high-end products. Often middlemen benefit from the high cost and farmers are forced to pick vanilla pods prematurely to make more money and the quality lacks. We work hard to stock the highest quality vanilla pods on the market only selecting those with the highest vanillin content.
Learn more about Madagascar’s vanilla industry.
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