2-Plants: The bitter taste of vanilla
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------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------
TITLE: The bitter taste of vanilla
SOURCE: The Independent, UK, by Cahal Milmo
DATE: 19 Aug 2004
---------------------- archive: www.genet-info.org/ ----------------------
"Privately, growers and exporters admit that technology, whether in
the form of fermented bacteria or the prospect of genetically
modified versions of their crop, rather than price, threatens to
erode the status of their precious pods as the unique source for
the world's headiest flavour. Mr Nathu said: "They have just
announced in Brazil that they've isolated the gene code for coffee.
They want to produce a perfect, uniform coffee. It is just a matter
of time before they do the same with vanilla. 'When that happens
we will have lost one of the last wholly organic and unique crops.'"
The bitter taste of vanilla
It was once an industry that worked to the benefit of rich and poor
alike. Then a tropical storm combined with a technological breakthrough
to cause catastrophe. Cahal Milmo reports on the tragic price of one of
our favourite flavours
They call them "green gold" in Ntenjeru. The long, curving pods that hang
among the banana trees are so valuable that security guards, some with
just bows and arrows, are employed to protect them.
The gold is the fruit of the orchid planifolia, better known as vanilla,
the heady seed discovered by Mexican Indians which has developed into a
GBP 2bn industry, flavouring the tastes of rich Western economies.
In places such as Ntenjeru, a lush corner of Uganda on Lake Victoria, and
the African island state of Madagascar, the world's largest producer of
vanilla, four years of rapidly increasing prices have brought a rare
windfall, funding "luxuries" that include full-time education, a
permanent roof, four-wheel-drives and even extra wives. But, suddenly,
all is not well in the vanilla plantations of the developing world that
stretch from Papua New Guinea to the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean.
Samuel Wataala, who has two acres of vanilla vines in Ntenjeru, said:
"Vanilla has brought development. Many people here were living in grass
huts. Now they have permanent homes. Some men have married new wives.
There are many Nissans and Toyota Land Cruisers. Times have been good but
this year they will not be. Farmers have pulled up their crops because,
now, it is worthless."
Last year, the sweetest spice of all, cured in the equatorial sunshine
then shipped around the globe, was selling for up to USD 300 (GBP 164) a
kilo. In 1990, it was fetching just USD 15. So deeply in demand is the
vanilla bean, which South American Indians believed had mystical healing
properties, that a single, shrivelled, brown pod sells for GBP 4 to GBP 5
in British supermarkets, destined to flavour exotic puddings and the
sugar jars of the nation's foodies.
But yesterday, as several hundred tons of raw, green pods were being
gathered in Uganda, and Madagascar was preparing for the biggest harvest
in its history, the price of vanilla had plummeted to USD 4 (GBP 2.20) a
kilo, a fall of more than 98 per cent.
So one of the success stories of equitable trade between the developing
world and wealthy Western countries (90 per cent of pure vanilla goes to
the United States, France and Germany), is looking distinctly one-sided.
The reason for this catastrophic decline is twofold. Much of the bonanza
of recent years was due to Cyclone Hudah, the tropical storm that tore
through Madagascar in 2000, destroying a quarter of its crop and causing
a worldwide shortage of natural vanilla.
More worrying for the world's vanilla farmers, most of whom are
smallholders with little more than an acre of this most labour-intensive
of crops, is that the shortage is spurring their Western customers to
turn to an unlikely alternative for their exotic flavouring: rice husks
and stainless-steel fermentation tanks.
Food and drink producers, who have suffered dents in their profit margins
caused by the vagaries of fluctuating vanilla prices and supplies liable
to fall foul of extreme weather, are turning to biotechnology to produce
their vanilla flavour by fermenting bacteria with cereal waste.
The cutting-edge science, its proponents say, has achieved a goal that
had long eluded food technologists, producing a synthetic "natural"
vanilla that tastes like the real thing. It is also a science, part-based
on techniques perfected in laboratories in Norwich, which some producers
of natural vanilla fear could put them out of business.
Claude Andreas, the president of GESAV, one of Madagascar's largest
vanilla-producing co-operatives, said: "We face competition on several
fronts. There are countries such as Indonesia or Vietnam which are
gearing up to produce cheaper vanilla. But the biggest threat is
'biotech' vanilla. If we don't meet this challenge the danger is that we
will be put out of work by chemical works." Growers admit the see-sawing
yields and cost of their crop is driving users of natural vanilla extract
into the arms of the suppliers of this new technology.
The worldwide demand for raw vanilla is estimated at 2,000 tons, but
since the pods contain just 2 per cent of vanillin, the main active
compound that gives vanilla its flavour, the total annual production of
extract is 40 tons. This "elite" vanilla mostly goes into upmarket
products, including premium ice creams such as Häagen Dazs and even malt
whiskies. It is also an ingredient of the world's best-selling soft
But the level of production of natural vanilla extract is far below the
worldwide demand for vanillin, 12,000 tons of which is used in mass-
produced foodstuffs from biscuits to beer. To meet this demand, for
decades many manufacturers have used an inferior, chemically produced
version of the compound. Now a French-based biotechnology giant, Rhodia,
has perfected a new version of vanillin, Rhovanil Natural, made by
fermenting rice bran with a harmless bacteria, that tastes very like the
Despite underlining that its product is based on natural ingredients, the
process could not be further from the low-tech, sun-baked plantations of
Africa, the Pacific or South-east Asia. It is produced in gleaming steel
vats at a state-of-the-art plant in Lyons. At around EUR 800 per kilo, it
costs vastly more than the chemically produced synthetic vanillin but is
significantly cheaper than natural vanilla extract.
The company refuses to discuss the scale of its production but said
demand was doubling every year. Dominque Gianotta, the global marketing
manager for Rhovanil, which has been registered as a trademark, said:
"There are several hundred molecules in natural vanilla that give it its
flavour. We are producing just one so it will never be the same, but
because it is natural it seems to be more rounded. An independent panel
found this product is more natural in its smell."
Mr Gianotta said Rhovanil Natural was unlikely to force vanilla farmers
out of business but admitted the inconsistencies of the natural crop gave
companies such as Rhodia an opening in the market. "Vanilla is the
world's most-appreciated flavour. We are just producing what nature is
doing," he said. "The pressure on vanilla beans helps companies to
develop alternatives. But I don't think [these products] will substitute
natural vanilla. If tomorrow there was suddenly no natural vanilla, it
would kill the market for naturalness, full stop."
Producers of flavourings for food and drink say they are increasingly
using "nature- identical" vanilla compounds because of the cost savings.
Danisco, a Danish-based company that ranks among the world's largest
food-ingredient producers, has devised two new vanilla "systems" to be
added to spirits. Samantha Forgham, Danisco's beverages manager, told a
trade magazine: "When using a vanilla replacer as a toner or smoother to
a high-proof spirit, we can show savings of approximately 50 per cent
based on today's price of vanilla extract."
Producers complain that the claim of "naturalness" and the hi-tech
alchemy that produces something like Rhovanil Natural is helping to
squeeze their market. Under European and American marketing rules, the
fermented vanillin cannot be described as "natural vanilla" but it can be
called a "natural flavouring".
Samash Nathu, the chief executive of Magellan Worldwide, which supplies
five tons of cured vanilla beans from Uganda every year, said: "There
will always be a premium for genuine vanilla beans but people are finding
the substitutes more and more acceptable. That is not least because they
can put 'natural flavouring' on their labels. That may well be true but
the consumer does not know the nature of the process that produced this
so-called natural vanillin. It is nothing to do with beans and the
The result is a sense of crisis in the vanilla industry, a normally
sedate trade where each plant takes three years to mature, is pollinated
by hand then takes nine months to produce a pod. The beans are cured by
being briefly boiled, dried in the sun then processed into an alcohol-
based extract or sold whole.
When the Ugandan harvest started this month there were reports of riots
by farmers complaining at the crash in prices. Impoverished landowners,
trying to protect their crops from thieves, cannot afford professional
security guards, who would cost perhaps a quarter of their likely income
from their crop.
Francis Kiyaga, a vanilla farmer in the region, said his neighbours had
resorted to rudimentary means to protect their crops. "Some can't afford
the security guards, so they make do with a guy with a bow and arrows."
In Ntenjeru, a villager was beaten to death and his body burnt by a crowd
after he was caught trespassing on a vanilla farm.
Producers admit that after years of dramatically rising prices, a
correction was always inevitable. Aga Sekalala, managing director of
Uganda Vanilla Producers and Processors, said: "It's like any commodity,
like coffee, like soya beans. People wanted to cash in and in the end the
price had to crash. But getting these farmers to understand is a very big
Privately, growers and exporters admit that technology, whether in the
form of fermented bacteria or the prospect of genetically modified
versions of their crop, rather than price, threatens to erode the status
of their precious pods as the unique source for the world's headiest flavour.
Mr Nathu said: "They have just announced in Brazil that they've isolated
the gene code for coffee. They want to produce a perfect, uniform coffee.
It is just a matter of time before they do the same with vanilla.
"When that happens we will have lost one of the last wholly organic and
European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering
Hartmut MEYER (Mr)
Kleine Wiese 6
D - 38116 Braunschweig
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