In honor of National Fair Trade Month, we're taking a look at some of the social, economic, and environmental impacts of common pantry ingredients. Last week, we found a number of Fair Trade cocoa products. Today we turn our eye to vanilla.Vanilla pods come from orchid plants native to Central America and now cultivated across the world. Madagascar produces the majority of the world's vanilla and the rest is grown in Indonesia, French Polynesia, Mexico, the Comoros Islands, Tonga, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, and India. Vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive crops in the world. A vine may take up to three years to bloom and then it must be painstakingly hand-pollinated. Beans may develop on the vine for up to nine months, followed by additional curing time.
Price fluctuations have rocked the market since 2000, when cyclones and floods in Madagascar and Indonesia led to a worldwide vanilla shortage and inflated prices. Hoping to meet the demand, farmers in Africa and Latin America increased vanilla production. However, commercial food producers simply decided to replace real vanilla with synthetic flavoring. Vanilla prices crashed, forcing many farmers to abandon their operations and slip into poverty and even violence.
Fair Trade guarantees that farmers receive a competitive price and helps stabilize their businesses and communities. Currently, there is only one consumer-level supplier of Fair Trade Certified vanilla beans and extract in the United States, Frontier Natural Products Co-op. Frontier sources its vanilla from small family farms outside Bangalore, India. Workers are paid above average rates and the farms use sustainable practices such as shade growing and erosion prevention.
Emily Ho is a writer, recipe developer, and educator. She lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches classes on food preservation, wild food, and herbalism. Emily is a Master Food Preserver and founder of LA Food Swap and the international Food Swap Network.
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