The dark brown bottle tips just enough to let the dark, pungent liquid drip from the opening into the belly of the measuring spoon. It cascades into the bowl of thick, ivory coloured batter, moments away from being scooped, rolled and deposited onto a shiny cookie sheet. Soon to be transformed into the most scrumptious of cookies. As I stir the vanilla into the dough I can smell the sweet, fruity aroma emanating from the batter. Of all the souvenirs I purchased on my last trip to Mexico, my one liter bottle of vanilla is by far the best; and probably the only one I hold onto.
Vanilla (vanilla planifolia), the world’s second most expensive spice, after Saffron, permeates our lives. Whether it’s in food, drink, household products, perfume, body wash or a thousand other items, it is hard to imagine life without it. Unfortunately, there is a real chance that such a calamity may come to pass. Weather events, soaring prices, burning of vanilla crops and consumer demand are weighing heavily on the worldwide vanilla supply.
In it’s purest form, vanilla is the flavour created by the chemical compound vanillin and forms only 2% of the extract from a vanilla bean. It is also a naturally occurring component in ferolic acid, rice bran, sugar and cloves and can easily be synthesized in a laboratory or extracted from wood pulp. All forms of vanillin are chemically identical and it is not possible for the human palate to distinguish a difference in taste regardless of the origin. Then why does vanilla bean vanilla taste so much better? Like many crops, the soil, water, air and time spent aging on the vine adds up to 400 different compounds to the bean-originated vanilla. The terroir of each producing region is what makes Mexican vanilla different from Indonesian vanilla different from Madagascar vanilla.
In 2016, Indonesia became the world leader in vanilla production, edging out the long-time vanilla producing champion, Madagascar. 3,200 tonnes of vanilla originated inIndonesia, just above the 3,100 tonnes from Madagascar and well above the 463 tonnes produced by the country thought to be the birthplace of vanilla, Mexico. Papua New Guinea, China, Turkey, Tonga, Uganda, Comoros and Malawi (at 22 tonnes) round out the top ten producing countries.
Vanilla has been in short supply since 2014. The limited size of worldwide vanilla production and the removal of government controls in Madagascar (a condition imposed by the World Bank and EU as a requirement of financial aid to the world’s largest producer of vanilla beans) means less stability in pricing. Price drops it lead to the replacement of less valuable vanilla crops with more profitable ones. Reduced supply forces the price up and farmers replant vanilla vines. These new plants take four years to reach commercially viable size, at which time a flood of beans hit the market and the high price spirals down, repeating the cycle.
In 2004 the price of cured beans hit $500 per kilo. Suddenly, vanilla was a profitable crop and farmers began to replant. As a result of this increased production the market become glutted and by 2010 the price sank to $25 per kilo. The cycle of crop destruction and alternate planting started again, production shrank and by 2016 the prices had increased again to between $220 and $245 per kilo. According to Nielson-Massey, cured beans were selling for $400-$450 per kilo at the beginning of 2017.
Political instability, a damaging cyclone in 2000, speculation in vanilla farming, a massive hurricane in 2017 and a demand from consumers for pure, natural, non-GMO and Fair Trade products have fuelled sustained high prices. The world’s largest buyers of cured vanilla do not see the prices decreasing any time soon.
The irony of this volatility is that the quality of the vanilla tends to be inversely proportionate to the price. The maturation of the flavours in the beans is cut short by the rush of farmers to pick the pods early, thus loosing many of the flavour compounds that develop. The fact is, with the value of the beans being so high, vanilla farms are often the target of raids by criminal gangs and can see farmers sleeping in the fields with machetes just to protect the beans. Not really worth the risk at $1.50 per day in pay.
Does this mean that you favourite cookie will be missing that special aroma of vanilla? Not necessarily, but there is a greater chance than ever that vanilla will show up less and less as an ingredient at your local bakery. With luck the socio-economic situations of Madagascar and Indonesia will improve, destructive weather events will spare the crops and production techniques will modernize and become more efficient. The alternative is much less tasty. And, if you make a trip to Mexico, you might want to stock up.