November 8, 2005
I was interviewed this last weekend by the African correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. Scott Calvert, the correspondent, had just returned from a trip to Madagascar and learned from the locals in the vanilla industry there, including some farmers, that they feared that vanilla may be drawing to a close as a way to support themselves. As the prices for vanilla have collapsed, growers worldwide wonder what will happen next. How low will the prices go, and is there a possibility that the prices will ever go up again, even if not as high as they were between 2000 and 2004appen next. How low will the prices go, and is there a possibility that the prices will ever go up again, even if not as high as they were between 2000 and 2004.
The farmers have reason for concern, and we should as well. The reality is that the new generation of synthetics made from plant sources (beets, wood pulp, and other sources) offer cheap substitutes for vanilla. Frozen dessert manufacturers changed their formulas during the period where vanilla’s prices were so high, and they haven’t had much incentive to switch back. The rationale, I’m sure, is to save a few pennies on vanilla, especially as the cost of butter and cream has increased, and the sharp rise in gasoline costs has affected the prices of most products.
There are a number of reasons for concern: Will consumers become accustomed to the flavor of the imitation vanilla and not recognize pure vanilla when they taste it? Will farmers give up when the prices go too low, tear up their crops and either plant something else or immigrate to other countries in search of work? And, even though there is a demand in the gourmet-foods, natural foods and food service niche markets, will this provide enough demand for vanilla that farmers can still eke out a living growing vanilla?
From my point of view, the current situation is very troubling. Vanilla is a rain forest plant, though very little vanilla is now actually grown in rain forests. Nevertheless, like many other plants from the forest, it has proven medicinal value. Could we lose a plant that might have great value in cancer treatment or DNA repair? We have already lost many, many rain forest plants that could well have contained useful medicinal components.
The flavor of pure vanilla is unique and no flavor scientist has been able to come close to replicating it. This, after continuous attempts by flavorists and scientists for more than a hundred years.
The livelihoods of thousands of farmers would be endangered with the loss of vanilla, and their families would suffer the consequences of increased poverty, compromised educational opportunities, and the likelihood of having their families split apart as the head (or heads) of household move to another country in search of work. This last is not uncommon as children are placed with relatives while both parents, frequently with limited skills for working in industrialized countries, attempt to cross borders illegally in search of a way to support themselves and their families back home.
It’s so easy for us to forget how each choice we make, each action we take, can have a ripple effect that reaches far beyond our immediate lives. Our planet is so small now; we can have a positive or negative effect on people we have never met who live thousands of miles away. For the love of my family and the desire for a healthier planet for my grandsons and the children of the future, I feel very strongly about keeping vanilla a viable, healthy crop. I would like to see Fair Trade prices for vanilla, not as an exception, but as a rule. It’s the most labor-intensive agricultural product in the world and yet the farmer’s make only a few pennies on each dollar created through the sale of vanilla.
If you want to know more about what you can do to help save pure vanilla, attend one of my lectures. Better yet, create an event where I can come to speak, show my slide show of the faces and places of vanilla, do a special taste testing of vanilla or a meal based around vanilla and educate people about the importance of saving pure vanilla. Together we can make a difference.