- Issue: Spring 2019
Native to South and Central America, vanilla has been cultivated for hundreds of years. Prized for its smooth, rich flavor, it’s one of the most in-demand spices the world over. But the orchids from which vanilla is derived are slow to grow and difficult to cultivate, meaning that our appetite for this fragrant flavor often outpaces supply. And with most of the crop grown in places prone to extreme weather events, the market may become increasingly unpredictable as the climate changes.
Commanding around $300 per lb—more than silver—vanilla is the second-most expensive spice in the world, behind saffron.
NO BEANS ABOUT IT
Vanilla bean actually isn’t a bean at all—it’s a fruit that comes from the vanilla orchid.
MADE IN MADAGASCAR
Though vanilla isn’t indigenous to the country, Madagascar now supplies up to 85% of the world’s natural vanilla. In 2017, a tropical cyclone destroyed about 30% of Madagascar’s vanilla, causing a global shortage and record-high prices.
Vanilla is a sluggish, finicky crop. A vanilla orchid vine can take up to four years to mature, and its flowers must be painstakingly pollinated by hand. Nine months later, when the vanilla beans are ripe, they’re handpicked to maximize flavor.
Cyclones and other natural events can severely affect the quality and availability of vanilla, impacting both farmers and consumers. In Madagascar, WWF works with CARE and McCormick & Company—one of the world’s largest purchasers of vanilla—to help producers become more resilient to extreme weather conditions and economic challenges.
Demand for vanilla is on the upswing. To close the gap between supply and demand, most vanilla products are made with synthetic vanillin, which is about 20 times cheaper than the real thing. In fact, less than 1% of vanilla flavoring comes from vanilla orchids.
Number of hand-pollinated blossoms that convert to just 1 pound of dried vanilla beans.
About 4.4 million pounds of vanilla beans are produced annually, requiring more than 1.3 billion blossoms.