Delicious vanilla, expensive vanilla

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Some consider vanilla to be the queen of spices – and they may be right. But what many people don't know is that her court is rife with fraud, corruption and violence. Not only that, but it's a spice that's tricky to grow.

Ice cream, pudding, cakes, yoghurt, drinks, shampoo, soap, body lotion – vanilla is used in more products than you can imagine. But it's rare for those products to contain real vanilla. Nevertheless, there's a huge global demand for the dark brown beans. For now.

Vanilla has recently run into a problem: Last season, the commodity price of one kilo of vanilla was over 600 US dollars, making it more expensive than silver. But a few years back, prices were as low as 35 dollars per kilo. So what happened?

Conditions were very dry in Madagascar in 2015 and 2016. The vanilla plants suffered, the harvest was meagre, and prices rose to 450 dollars per kilo. The following year, Cyclone Enawo struck the island nation in Africa. The storm destroyed between 20 and 30 per cent of the vanilla crop. As a result, prices rose to 600 dollars and more per kilo.

How can natural events in just one country determine the world price of vanilla? Madagascar supplies around 80 per cent of the world's vanilla. It's one of the best places for vanilla to thrive, offering ideal conditions in terms of climate and soil, so that flavours develop better here than anywhere else. If production takes a hit in Madagascar, the consequences are felt across the world.

Farmers have only one day for hand pollination

Ironically, vanilla is not even native to Madagascar. It originally comes from Mexico, the only place where there are bee and hummingbird species that can pollinate the flowers of the vanilla orchid. Unless these insects and birds pollinate the flowers, the pods cannot develop.

Vanilla blossom

Growing vanilla in Madagascar is a delicate task, given that the plant is not actually native to the country. However, the soil and climate are ideal for this orchid species.

As such, people need to lend nature a hand, and have been doing so ever since they discovered how in 1841. Back then, it was Edmond Albius, a slave, who invented the technique for artificially pollinating the flowers of the vanilla plant using a wooden stick or a blade of grass. His method is still used by family farmers in Madagascar to this day. An experienced farmer can pollinate between 1,000 and 1,500 flowers per day.

As if that weren't complicated enough, the flowers only bloom for a single day. If the flowers aren't pollinated on that day, the pods won't develop. For this reason, the family farmers have to inspect their plots constantly so that they don't miss the narrow window of time. Once pollinated, it's another six months until harvest.

Pollination vanilla flower

Each individual flower of the vanilla plant must be pollinated by hand. Only then will the pods develop.

Some people have become millionaires overnight

Meanwhile, the price has increased dramatically from 35 to over 600 dollars per kilo, making quite a few people in Madagascar millionaires, virtually overnight – traders and farmers alike. In a country as poor as Madagascar, ranked 162 out of 189 on the Human Development Index, this has led to an imbalance that has given rise to fraud, corruption and crime. Farmers are harvesting too early, producers aren't drying the pods long enough (the higher the water content, the heavier the product) and police officers are taking bribes, while people not in the vanilla business themselves simply try to steal the pods.

Vanilla farmers have no choice but to watch over the plants before the harvest in July and August. Every single night. They stay on the lookout for thieves creeping through the fields, as Swiss media NZZ and SRF report.

In the ZDF documentary "Vanilla – The Hunt for the Brown Gold", some farmers claim that they lose up to 70 per cent of their harvests to thieves. In the same documentary, an American from the US Peace Corps who works on the ground claims that this is an exaggeration and that a more realistic figure for the loss would be 30 per cent.

Click here to read the story about Madagascan vanilla, which you can pre-order in our online shop.


As expensive as it is delicate (, accessed on 8 June 2020)

Price of vanilla going down (, accessed on 8 June 2020)

The sweet poison from Madagascar (, accessed on 8 June 2020)

Vanilla – The hunt for the brown gold (ZDF documentary via our partner PRONATEC – only available on YouTube,, accessed on 8 June 2020)

Inequalities in Human Development in the 21st Century (, accessed on 8 June 2020)

Higher prices, worsening quality: Vanilla bean test ratings (, accessed on 8 June 2020)

Vanilla (spice) (, accessed on 8 June 2020)

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