As global demand for exotic foodstuffs is ever on the rise, so too is the destruction and violence associated with the industry. We’ve seen it with drug cartels connected to the booming avocado trade, the widespread use of palm oil in many processed foods, and one of our most loved flavors and fragrances: Madagascan vanilla.
Though there are several, the main species cultivated for vanilla extract is Vanilla plantifolia. Originally native to Mexico, this member of the Orchid family is now grown in tropical regions around the world including the likes of Indonesia and Madagascar–the latter being the world’s greatest exporter of this “black gold.”
Used in everything from cosmetics to foods, vanilla is one of our most-loved aromas. But can such heavy demand on one small corner of the earth really be sustained? The signs are indicating no and this is a perfect example of a greater problem than the delicate vanilla pod alone; we want every kind of food at every time of year but aren’t stopping to think of the implications of this greed.
Madagascar is an incredibly biodiverse country. The number of endemic species (or, those found nowhere else in the world) on the island is staggering and a result of having 80 million years of evolution under its belt since it split from the continent. We’re talking 95% of reptiles, 89% of plantlife and 92% of mammals (hello, lemurs!) found nowhere else on the planet. This kind of richness needs protecting because once it’s gone, it’s well and truly gone.
But as lovely as it would be to let the forests flourish and the animals within them run wild, Madagascar struggles with abject poverty and its people desperately in need of making a livelihood one way or another. Throw temperamental weather into the mix and you can see how all this is coming together, can’t you? A disastrous cyclone swept across the Indian Ocean last year, hitting Madagascar and rendering a quarter of a million homeless in the blink of an eye.
Much like any popular cash crop, suppliers of vanilla try to cut corners wherever possible. As a result, the industry is riddled with child labor and deforestation. Oh, and did I touch on the gang violence yet? It’s bad. We’re talking a scale larger than you can imagine with devestation that shows no sign of letting up.
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron, which is also, funnily enough, derived from a flower (Crocus, in case you’re wondering). Therefore, there’s much profit to be made. Especially because conditions are volatile and a successful harvest isn’t always guaranteed. This led to an extortionate 13x increase in price between 2012-2016 here in the UK.
The best quality pods will always make the most money. Only, small-scale businesses face one of the most heartbreaking possibilities: that their perfectly-ripe pods will be stolen from right underneath their noses. Gangs routinely commit murder for the crop, meaning more and more innocent families are going hungry. As desperation creeps up, children are forced to forego getting an education and get to work in the field alongside their parents. And on top of that, deforestation is spreading to make way for new plantations.
There are several issues occuring here that, combined, result in a complex, soupy chaos. The first is that the industry is not heavily-regulated enough and those who need protection aren’t getting it. The second is the nation’s poverty that is turning citizens to crimes such as those mentioned above, as well as putting farmers under immense pressure to exploit the environment at whatever cost. And the third? A lack of education across the board: amongst locals who don’t realise the repercussions of persistent logging and amongst those of us living in wealthy nations not even considering the consequences our demand places on economies such as Madagascar’s.
It is unfortunate that we’ve become so spoiled as to not even consider eating local or season anymore. We expect to go into a grocery store with our Instagram-inspired shopping lists and be able to purchase everything we want from permanently-stocked shelves. Unfortunately, nature just doesn’t work like that though and it’s about time we try to get back to our roots and embrace what’s local and seasonal (it’s always the cheaper solution, too!)
But for all the bakers and perfume wearers out there; here are some ways to have your cake and eat it too. Or least, minimise your impact if you’re not quite ready to give up vanilla just yet:
Reduce your consumption. I know–I too use vanilla in almost every cake recipe I cook with. Yikes! However, with this playing on my conscience, I’m going to dramatically reduce my consumption and instead purchase better quality, organic, fairly-traded vanilla much less frequently and reserve for a proper treat. Who wants to join me?
Consider vanillin. Synthetic vanillin is widely used in the fragrance industry as well as flavoring many processed “vanilla” sweets. Although there’s been a huge movement towards more ‘natural’ or ‘green’ products over the past decade, there’s a strong belief in the industry that opting for synthetic is the most ‘eco-friendly’ way to go. Many believe that synthetic compounds can cause allergies; however, chemical synthesis can often remove the problem molecules. Perhaps a win all round? You can decide for yourself.
Support Madagascar. Pick a charity you believe in that’s supporting the rich biodiversity of Madagascar and its people and support it with whatever donation or fundraising you can commit to.
Talk about it. As with any environmental issue, the most important way that you can have an impact and help implement positive change is to talk about it. It might not be the most cheerful topic to discuss over coffee, but if your companion orders that shot of vanilla in their latte…? Well, I’ll leave that one to you to decide.
Do your favorite recipes or perfumes contain vanilla? How do you think you can help the Madagascan vanilla industry?
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