Crisis in Madagascar as price of vanilla nears that of gold
Vanilla is one of the world’s most popular seasonings and an important ingredient in products ranging from perfume to ice-cream; but it is no longer the staple it was around the world. Madagascar, the world's main producer, is facing a crisis.
The great chefs are now turning their backs on vanilla. Famed French chef Gilles Marchal, whose restaurant is in Montmartre, Paris, declared with regret that he now works much less with the black and bean-shaped pod.
The reason being that the price is now equivalent to that of gold per kilo, and is eight times the price it was just a few years ago. The price per kilo has jumped from $50 (€42) in 2012-2013 to $400 (€340) in 2016-17, according to a 2017 Cyclope report (the bible of commodities traded internationally).
Several factors explain this price spike including uncontrolled market speculation and a vanilla crop failure in Madagascar, which produces 80% of the global supply. The island was also hit by Cyclone Enawo in March 2017, which destroyed many of the vanilla orchids which produce the seed pods, and this was followed by a major drought.
"Vanilla today costs $600 per kilo (€485 euros), it's huge," says Georges Geeraerts, president of the group of vanilla exporters from Madagascar (GEVM).
'Vanilla crime wave'
In the northeast of the island, where the majority of vanilla plantation are located, this price rise stands in stark contrast with living standards, with workers earning just one euro a day.
Violent thefts of the highly valued crops have hit such a level that locals are calling for armed police guards. But many Madagascans are taking matters into their own hands.
"We are constantly on the alert," says Dominique Rakotoson, producer and manager of an export company in Madagascar, who was robbed in 2017. "Many of us sleep in the middle of the plantations to monitor our crops. Last week, a man tried to steal plants in our area… he was stoned to death.”
Dozens of thieves have been apprehended in recent weeks; and such is the anger some have ended up being brutally murdered.
"People trust only the people's justice," explains Geeraerts of GEVM.
Adding to this crime wave is the connection between money laundering via rosewood trafficking. Rosewood has become the world’s most trafficked wildlife commodity, almost all of its illegal, and sales from Madagascar alone are worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
"It's a fact: vanilla is being used to launder money illegally obtained from sales of rosewood," says vanilla producer Rakotoson.
"A criminal gang is behind all of this and [some of its members are] close to our government," he said, blaming the country’s political instability.
'Substitute or synthesised vanilla'
To try and avoid the manifold risks facing the crop, producers are forced to harvest and sell before the pods hit full maturity. This has impacted the quality of the pods.
"I have no choice but to pick at eight months," Rakotson says. "We all do the same." However, vanilla takes nine months to mature and if it is picked too early you end up with a pod without the distinctive perfume. The famous perfume and flavour from the pods only manifests in the final month.
Experts do not hide their concern about this sector which now faces high demand, poor quality and low production.
"Unlike the crisis of 2003, which passed after a few months, this seems well established. Today, the sector is really in danger," says Geeraerts.
The impact is widespread in the food industry: some pastry chefs – industrial or artisanal – have replaced natural vanilla with a synthetic version, which sell for a more reasonable €10 to €15 per kilo.
"If agri-food professionals adopt these substitutes, it will be difficult to get them to return to the natural flavors," explains Geeraerts.
The vanilla sector is mobilising, they have re-introduced an official harvest date and improved the traceability of the product. This should all aid the sector in restoring the image of the queen of the seasonings.
"These steps should help to clean up the industry and reduce crime," said the president of the GEVM.