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Symrise gives vanilla farmers a fair trade boost

By Jess Halliday , 17-Jun-2009

Symrise has received fair trade certification for its bourbon vanilla extracts from Madagascar, offering farmers advice and premiums that help dissuade them from switching to less labour intensive crops.

The German flavour and fragrance firm has been involved with vanilla since 1874. It recently announced that selected extracts have received the organic seal.

The news of the fair trade certification by Swiss organisation Flo-Cert means the company can now assure that farmers have received a fair deal for their beans. Since vanilla-growing is a very labour-intensive occupation, with each flower pollinated by hand, this can help persuade them not to turn their backs on their vines in favour of more lucrative agricultural products or industries.

“We want to enhance our high standards by adding a social component that supports vanilla farmers while also offering our clients a special quality that creates new market potential for them,” said Oliver Nembach, category development manager at Symrise.

Interest in fair trade foods has mushroomed in recent years. A report commissioned by the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) indicated huge increases in sales of products carrying the Fairtrade mark in a number of European countries in 2008, compared to 2007 – over 50 per cent in some cases.

Vanilla set up

Madagascar is the premier vanilla-growing country and is renowned for top quality bourbon vanilla cured using the traditional process. Of the 2,400 metric tonnes anticipated for the 2009 harvest, 61.7 per cent is expected to come from Madagascar.

The Madagascan vanilla market has been beset by banditry and rumour-mongering about bean quality, but Symrise decided it needed to have a physical presence in the country so it can keep an eye on the state of plants and the harvest rather than relying on second-hand info or story-telling.

It overseas the entire process, guiding farmers on growing the beans, pre-financing them, then buying the material at harvest time at the contracted price. It carries out curing, using the traditional technique of blanching, drying and storage, at its own site in Madagascar or subcontracts out to partners.

“If this is done properly, the quality and yields of the vanillin content are optimised,” Nembach told FoodNavigator.com. When individual farmers cure their own beans the quality is often under par, with a high moisture content that can cause problems with microbacteria.

The cured beans are either sent to Germany for specialised extraction or traditional extraction is carried out in Madagascar.

Fair prices

The system gives farmers security, as they know the price they are going to receive,” said Nembach.

For the fair trade vanilla, the company follows guidelines from Flo-Cert on bean pricing and the farmers receive a premium. It has also established a non-profit organisation that runs education programmes for farmers and their communities.

In some vanilla-growing countries, such as Mexico (from where the orchid originates), the industry has floundered as farmers have been unwilling to continue the labour-intensive practice when other work could provide then with a high income for less effort.

Nembach said that Symrise farmers operate on a small scale, and the majority are not exclusively in vanilla. It provides added value for them alongside other crops, and is “the icing on the cake”.

“If the price is too low, they will concentrate on other things,” he said. “Better prices and fair trade convince farmers to go on.”

Since the peak prices of 2004, when the FOB rate was €500 a kilo, and the subsequent crash, vanilla prices have been stable but at a historical low. In 2008 they reached €28 a kilo.

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