“It’s obvious that [the supply] of natural vanilla beans will never meet demand,” said Antoine Kastler, president of the European Flavour and Fragrance Association (EFFA) and sales director at flavour house Robertet.
“We need to be able to find other natural raw materials, some molecules that are mimetic. The other [alternative] is biosynthesised vanillin and that the consumer accepts buying synthetic vanillin, which is listed as a flavouring on pack.”
Vanillin can be manufactured from a variety of sources ranging from wood to petroleum.
According to Kastler, artificial and synthetic flavours are acceptable to many consumers.
“When we talk about consumers, it’s difficult to know who we are really speaking about. It’s a very broad [base]. In the vast majority, the consumer, when he or she buys food wants good quality food at a good price. Taste, quality and price are the priorities rather than other ethical issues.”
The regular supply crises that send vanilla pod prices skyrocketing are perhaps the biggest challenges the sector faces, causing problems at the producer level, such as early harvesting and quick curing. Madagascar has been beset with rising criminality and violence linked to vanilla.
“Luckily that did not happen that much this year because of the government taking a strong position,” he said. “The government made [farmers] respect the harvest time, which was in mid-July in certain regions this year which is very late. The police also punished much more the theft of green vanilla beans and so the results this year were better. It’s going in the right direction.”
Despite the current high prices, fraud in the sector has never been a big problem. Kastler said this was “remarkable” and attributed it to the established nature of vanilla and the mature market. “There is already a big arsenal of analytical techniques in place to detect fraud.”
Nevertheless, many suppliers are also setting up direct operations in Madagascar in order to develop closer links with producers and have better control of supplies.
“It’s remarkable to see that a lot of the actors of the flavouring industry have decided to go to Madagascar, and either partner with local people or set up their own facilities," said Kastler. “[This means they can act] really locally, and not depend on importers in the food chain, which was the rule before when vanilla was not expensive,” he added.
The vanilla orchid is notoriously sensitive to climate changes.
Speaking to FoodNavigator at the FoodIntegrity conference in Nantes last month, where discussion focused on new plant breeding techniques (NPBTs) that can improve crop yield and resistance, Kastler said such techniques were still a long way off from being harnessed by the flavour industry for vanilla.
“What happens in the vanilla pod to create vanillin is naturally an enzymatic reaction. It’s a very complex reaction. We don’t even have the complete knowledge yet of how this happens so it makes it quite far off to develop a GM vanilla."
Instead, diversified sourcing is a better way to weather long-term climate change and short-term shocks, such as Madagascar’s cyclone season.
“One idea would be to grow vanilla outside Madagascar and make the plant resistant to climate change of the different [locations],” he said.
“The best way to make vanilla sustainable is to make sure the people who earn a living by growing vanilla in Madagascar, but also in other parts of the world, can live from their jobs in a sustainable way and can develop the growth of this. That will avoid prices dropping so low after a crisis that it will create the conditions of the next crisis. That’s maybe the biggest challenge we face.
"There is more and more vanilla being grown now because of the price – they are starting to grow it in India, Papua New Guinea and Uganda.
"With [the current] price, everyone is interested in starting to grow vanilla. But if they start, they should be able to sustain that. It shouldn’t be a stop-and-go.”
Asked whether minimum pricing should become standard in the industry to ensure producers earn a decent living, Kastler said they should have “at least a reasonable price”, adding that it was a difficult market to regulate due to the large numbers of smallholder farmers.