Responsibly sourced ingredients are really important to me, in fact, they’re part of everything I do. Using free-range local eggs and organic butter is the easy part, but there are a number of ingredients that have a surprisingly dark supply chain. One of those ingredients is vanilla and unfortunately, ignorance is no longer a good excuse. This post will explore what’s really going on in the countries where vanilla is being grown and convince you to ask for responsibly sourced vanilla.
As a crop, vanilla is incredibly sensitive. It can only be grown in a few countries where the conditions are just right. Although Madagascar is the most famous producer of vanilla, responsible for 80-85% of the world’s vanilla(a), a small percentage is grown outside of Madagascar in Uganda, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Seychelles(b). A tropical vine orchid, native to South America, the plant takes 3-4 years to mature. With a one day window in which to hand pollinate plants, a 9 month wait for beans, and a further few months of processing(a) before vanilla is ready for sale, it’s clear why the crop is so expensive.
However, this isn’t the only reason why the price of vanilla is so high. With a surge in demand driven by the switch to authentic not synthetic vanilla, poor weather conditions and the crime surrounding vanilla, its price skyrocketed to $600 per kg(b), making it second only to saffron(c). As prices rose, so did crime.
It sounds unbelievable, but the vanilla industry in Madagascar is tainted by money laundering, theft, violence, bribery and corruption. Theft of Madagascan vanilla harvests in 2018 was estimated to be as high as 10% of the crop. In 2019, the estimates are higher(c). With farmers trying to protect their livelihoods and no justice through the judicial system, vigilante farmers are sending their own messages to vanilla thieves(b). If you attack our farms, we will kill you(d). Murder of farmers and thieves is commonplace in Madagascar. Some sources attribute 5 deaths per week to the vanilla industry(f). Even with increased laws and sentences in place to prevent vanilla thefts(d), criminals are simply buying their way out of trouble(c).
One way the industry has attempted to avoid theft is by harvesting beans early, at 7 or 8 months, but this has reduced the quality of the crop and impacted its value(f). As well as the crime directly related to vanilla crops, the industry is also a hotbed for money laundering from the illegal gains of Rosewood smuggling. With money laundering also comes bribery and corruption(d).
Deforestation also plays a small role in Madagascar’s broken relationship with vanilla. With such a valuable crop, there is naturally a desire to plant more, with forests being stealthily felled to make way for vanilla plantations. Not only that, but as farmers become richer, they also want to build better homes for their families, and timber is what they need. There is also suggestion that gangs previously involved in Rosewood smuggling may now be trading endangered wildlife(d). As deforestation continues, and global conversations rage about global warming, there is certainly a threat to the delicate ecosystem in Madagascar. One that threatens to obliterate the perfect conditions for vanilla production(h).
Frustratingly, the rewards of vanilla crops pose huge opportunities for Madagascans. Vanilla incomes are more than 10x those of average households(c). However, it is typically buyers, brokers and intermediaries who take the lion’s share of the profits(b). The farmers growing vanilla must use every resource they can, including their children, to maximise the value of their crops(g). Regardless of who’s making money at the moment, as it is such a volatile crop, the vanilla economy is in a short-cycled and constant state of boom and bust. When the price is high, everyone wants to farm it, theft increases and the quality reduces, reducing the price. Not only that, but buyers can’t afford to buy it and supply outstrips demand, reducing the price. When the price is low, everyone stops farming it, demand outstrips supply, and the price goes up(e).
Efforts are being made by Western economies and companies to stabilise the economy and encourage sustainable farming practices, but progress is slow. In fact, one such part of this drive is to give farmers stamps which enable them to code their beans. These markings deter thieves from stealing. It is also easier to match up thief with theft when there is a barcode linking the two(h).
Choosing Responsibly Sourced Vanilla
I absolutely love vanilla. But it has a bland reputation, and I think that’s a bit unfair! It epitomises luxury and simple beauty for me – the way I would describe my cake style. With pods, pastes, extracts, essences and seeds, it’s hard to know what’s real, what’s the best and where to start! In case you were wondering, vanilla bean paste is the best option as far as I’m concerned. Pods and seeds are both good alternatives, but not quite as practical. Finally extracts and essences are just flavourings – either natural or artificial – with the former being a by-product of the vanilla seed/paste extraction process. Many bakers don’t know the difference between them all, and some don’t care.
You will probably know by now that sustainability and responsibility are important to me. Many of the widely available brands don’t provide much clarity on their sustainability. So for me, that means buying vanilla from traceable, fair sources. I prefer to use vanilla from Littlepod – a company that tackles sustainability from 3 angles. The first is as simple as growing vanilla responsibly. Working directly with farmers that they know and trust, Littlepod has a fully traceable supply chain, where they can be confident about the working conditions of farmers and the safety of the crop. The second is packaging the vanilla in a more environmentally responsible way, using aluminium and glass over plastics. Finally, they reinvest 10% of their web shop sales into a non-profit working on marine conservation and coastal communities. As far as vanilla goes, I can be confident that I’m minimising harm and maximising opportunities.
I talk a lot about sustainable, responsibly sourced wedding cakes. For some people, that won’t be important. Other people just don’t realise that the industry can improve. For others, it’s really important. So when it comes to choosing your own wedding cake maker, just ask about the vanilla they use. If they don’t use responsibly sourced vanilla, why not switch to a different flavour? If you have questions about responsibly sourced cakes or want to book your own wedding cake in Surrey, Hampshire and beyond, please do get in touch. Good luck and happy planning.
With love from lila xx
(a) The Economist, 2018.
(b) FT, 2018.
(c) Reuters, 2019.
(d) The Guardian, 2018.
(e) Time, 2018.
(f) Fair Planet, 2018.
(g) The Guardian, 2016.
(h) BBC, 2018.