A Global Vanilla Bean Crisis

 

(Hurricane Enawo Making Landfall on Madagascar)

Largely unnoticed by the entire world, Madagascar was pummeled by Hurricane Enawo on March 7, 2017. As a category 4 hurricane with 168mph winds, it was the largest hurricane to hit Madagascar in 13 years. A devastating blow to a country whose roads are 89% unpaved and whose homes are largely made of wood. 

Enawo left more than 50 dead and more than 100,000 people homeless. It's economic effects will be felt for years. It has already impacted a major industry in the United States: vanilla. It is estimated that at least 30% of Madagascar's vanilla crop was destroyed by Enawo, roughly 24% of the total, global supply of vanilla beans. 

Consider, for a minute, what you ate in the last 24 hours. Did you have something sweet? If you're American, odds are you did. Vanilla touches each of us every day.

According to the US Food and Agricultural Agency, Madagascar produced 48% of the world's vanilla beans in 2014. By some estimates, Madagascar produced up to 80% of the world's vanilla beans in 2016. 


The resulting impact on the vanilla bean market has created global, industry panic. Prices on vanilla beans were already surging in 2016 due to dry conditions in vanilla bean producing regions. Now they are surging even more from $20kg in early 2016, to $500kg today. Some vanilla bean producers are charging as much as $1,100kg. 

(Madagascar Vanilla Plantation)

So why not just grow more vanilla beans? 

Cultivating a quality vanilla bean is an arduous process, to say the least. It can take up to four years. It is so labor intensive, that the vanilla bean (before the crisis) was the second most expensive spice in the world, just behind saffron. Current pricing change rates could make the vanilla bean even more expensive through the end of 2019. 

Only about 7,700 tons of vanilla were produced globally in 2014. Roughly 9,000 tons were produced in 2015 and 2016. In 2017, that number could be cut by as much as 40%. This isn't a new phenomena within the vanilla bean industry. In 2001 after severe storms had wreaked havoc in vanilla growing regions, global demand for vanilla was 12,000 tons, but only 1,800 tons were successfully produced. In fact, vanilla demand has exceeded supply almost every year since the 1800's. 

(Pemba Vanilla Farmer. Photo courtesy of the Pemba Foundation)

Vanilla is an orchid…an exotic flower, and one of only four orchids that bare a fruit. There are three primary vanilla species in the world, all of which originated from modern-day Mexico. They are Vanilla Planifolia (grown primarily today in Madagascar), Vanilla Tahitensis (mostly grown in the South Pacific), and Vanilla Pompona (found primiarly in Central/South America).

Most of the world's vanilla today is Vanilla Planifolia or "Bourbon Vanilla" from Madagascar. It is not named after the spirit, Bourbon. It is named after the place of its cultivation: Reunion, (Previously named Bourbon), an island a few hundred miles east of Madagascar. Reunion is the island where the French first brought vanilla for cultivation. 

Vanilla beans are grown in tropical regions around the world, where year-round warm temperatures and sufficient rainfall create soil conditions and climate that are suitable for proper growth. Islands around Madagascar such as Comoros, Moroni or Pemba off the coast of Tanzania are ideal regions. 

(Vanilla Plant Flower - Reunion, Madagascar)

Vanilla Beans grow within the "Bean Region" - a warm climate zone that is north and south of the equator. Coffee beans, cocoa beans and various other beans all grow within this region. Vanilla Beans, however, are the most sensitive since they are derived from a delicate flour. 

Like many orchids, the Vanilla Planifolia (the vanilla bean orchid) is an epiphyte that lives on a host tree. It’s a vine that grows rapidly up and around an existing tree, but does not draw on the tree’s nutrients. The vanilla orchid can be up to 3 years old before it begins to grow vanilla bean pods. The pods themselves require an additional 9-10 months of growth before they can be harvested. 

(Sri Lanka Vanilla Plant Growing Up a Plantation Post)

Before vanilla beans can be used for extract (their most common use), they must pass through six stages of an extended fermentation process. For this process to be successful, it requires moisture and moderate temperatures. These six stages include:

1. Harvesting 

  • Beans are pulled from the flower. At this phase they are green and odorless.
2. Killing
  • The outer vegetative skin of the bean is killed by soaking it in hot water to keep it from growing further.
3. Sweating
  • The vanilla pods are exposed to the hot conditions during the day and then wrapped in blankets at night to "sweat" out its inherent flavor and aroma.

4. Drying

  • Vanilla beans are laid out into the hot sun all day, and then brought inside at night, until the moisture content in the beans is down to 18%-35%. 

5. Grading
  • Once dried, vanilla beans are laid out and graded based on their quality, shape and moisture content.
6. Extraction
  • The dried vanilla beans are split, cut and submerged into alcohol to extract the bean's essential oils, giving us a final product of vanilla extract. 

The entire process from planting the vanilla bean through final extraction can require more than four years. 

Even in the wake of a crisis, we Americans still want our sweets. As a result, many American "sweets" and extract producers have turned to unhealthy, artificial ingredients to provide the taste/aroma of real vanilla at a fraction of the cost. 

Given the soaring price of vanilla beans in a world where "all-natural" matters more each day, countries such as Tonga, Tahiti, Mexico, Indonesia, Pemba and even the state of Hawaii have begun cultivating vanilla beans to increase global supply. But we won't see the fruits of those efforts for years.

Weather permitting, in the next decade all of our "sweets" just might be made from real vanilla beans. And the nations that produce the vanilla beans just might be thriving as a result.