Vanilla is an incredible plant and notoriously tricky to grow. Most of the global natural vanilla supply comes from Madagascar. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world and vanilla farmers struggle to make a decent living.
That’s why Fairtrade is so important and why some dedicated companies, like Ben & Jerry’s, use only Fairtrade vanilla in their products. Check out these six facts about why vanilla is such an amazing plant and how cyclones, theft and volatile prices plague the industry.
1. A 12-year-old discovered the secret to vanilla pollination
Vanilla blossoms are so dainty they can only be naturally pollinated by certain small bees. When farmers tried to grow vanilla in areas unpopulated by these bees, they were unable to pollinate it, until a 12-year-old boy, who was held in slavery on the Island of Réunion, found a way. Edmond Albius, after receiving a lesson on how to pollinate watermelons, sat next to a vanilla vine for hours until he discovered that the part which produced pollen was separated from the stigma by a little lid. Only by opening this flap could he transfer pollen to the stigma. And so the secret was revealed and a booming vanilla industry began. Edmund received no money for his discovery.
2. Vanilla comes from a tropical flowering orchid
Vanilla flowers open a few at a time and only last a single day. The fruit, long bean pods, take up to nine months to mature. Six hundred hand-pollinated blossoms yield about six kilos of green beans, which convert to one kilo of dried beans. Natural vanilla is the world’s only edible orchid.
3. Vanilla is naturally ecologically sustainable
Vanilla is grown by smallholder farmers, mainly in family plots. As no fertilizers or pesticides are needed, vanilla is a naturally ecologically sustainable crop. The vanilla orchids need to be hand pollinated, usually within 12 hours of blooming, which makes vanilla farming very time consuming and labour intensive.
Due to the current high prices, vanilla is also subject to theft. While farmers are receiving higher prices for vanilla in the current market, which has substantially, albeit temporarily, raised incomes for farmers, they are also subject to price fluctuations due to speculation by middlemen, and often lack access to information about market pricing.
4. Fresh vanilla beans have no aroma
The delicious vanilla scent arises from enzymatic action during curing. Tiny crystals of vanillin, which give vanilla its rich and sweet aroma, cover the best grade of cured vanilla bean pods.
5. Vanilla farmers are effected by the climate crisis
Madagascan farmers are also faced with inadequate access to basic services like education, healthcare and secure housing. Most vanilla farmers in Madagascar live in cyclone prone areas, which adversely affects both their vanilla crop and their food crops, further exacerbated by changes observed in weather patterns over the last decade. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world according to the UN, with a Human Development Index rank of 161 where 80% of the population are involved in agriculture.
6. The impact that Ben & Jerry’s has
Whilst the sustainability of vanilla farming remains a challenge, Ben & Jerry’s Fairtrade commitment means that there are significant benefits to farmers trying to address some of these challenges. The Fairtrade Minimum Price and Fairtrade Premium, paid to vanilla farmers by Ben & Jerry’s, is an important part of what makes Fairtrade unique. The Premium is for farmers to invest in social, economic and environmental projects to improve their businesses and communities. Farmers come together and collectively vote on how to spend the Premium, demonstrating the empowerment, democracy and worker voice at the heart of the Fairtrade model.
Vanilla farmers in Madagascar have used the Fairtrade Premium generated through Fairtrade sales in a range of ways, including to provide secure housing for themselves and their families, as well as investing in infrastructure which benefits the whole community like schools, hospitals, roads and bridges – something vanilla co-operative Association Soarano Vanille has done to great effect.
‘Being in Fairtrade has brought changes and development to the area. We constructed a solid hospital building. There was no high school before , we purchased a piece of land and did the construction and paid the salaries of 4 teachers for one year’. Lucette Talava, Chairperson of Association Soarano Vanille.
‘Fairway to Heaven’ is the newest addition to Ben & Jerry’s Fairtrade line-up and celebrates 25 years of Fairtrade. It has recently launched as an exclusive in the Co-op. It contains Fairtrade vanilla from Madagascan farmers which means you can directly support these farmers by indulging in delicious ice cream!
We absolutely love this new flavour in the office and we’d love to know what you think about this saintly scoop. Share on social media using hashtag, #Fairtrade25