The global vanilla market is ridiculously unstable, with vanilla prices swinging from $20/kg to $600/kg in the span of a few years, higher than the price of silver. And 80% of vanilla is grown in Madagascar, an island facing extreme poverty and, increasingly, cyclones which threaten to destabilize the market even further. Today, we break down why the vanilla price swings so dramatically, how cyclones threaten to impact it, the consequences of these swings for the environment, economy, and Malagasy farmers’ livelihoods, and where we could go from here. With special guest Dr. Julie Zähringer: Senior Research Scientist in the Centre for Development and Environment at the University of Bern in Switzerland.
I went into the episode having absolutely no previous knowledge about Madagascar and the vanilla market. As someone pretty involved in the environmental community, I usually have some understanding of what the issues with the topics of our episodes probably are. With vanilla, this was not the case. This was one of those issues that turned out to be incredibly connected between environmental problems, economic problems, and social problems. While this means that a small hiccup in one area has the potential to have a large impact on all the others, it also means that solutions offered in one of these areas have the same ripple effect.
I think something that really stuck out to me about the issues that arise with vanilla is how specific they are to Madagascar and how much vanilla production affects almost every person in Madagascar’s life. In the US and most other countries, we use or eat vanilla very frequently but typically don’t think about how it got into our cupcake or where the extract we’re using for baking comes from. However, many of the companies who we buy these products from are more aware of the situation in Madagascar, creating some cohesive international effort by these companies to assist those in Madagascar with social programs in hopes of stabilizing the vanilla market. This is encouraging and made it an easier episode to research when it came to the solutions portion because of the seemingly increasing interest that the global vanilla community has in stabilization.
To me, this episode may be one of the most interesting and eye-opening ones of the podcast. For weeks after my conversation with Dr. Zähringer, I was telling friends and family about vanilla in Madagascar. I think it astounded me for a few reasons. First, that vanilla prices have been higher than silver. Second, that 80% of vanilla is Madagascar. But third, and possibly most importantly, that I didn’t know it! And probably never would have had we not stumbled upon it for the podcast.
When we talk about impacts of climate change, we often share the same stories. Cities drowning. Wildfires. Storms. Drought. Climate refugees. And as we should, since these effects are the most universal. But they also have a ripple, which is easy to forget. Malagasy vanilla farmers are perhaps one of the clearest case studies of that ripple, which has a very clear effect on the global economy, on their livelihoods, and on the environment! Through deforestation, climate change is actually paving the way for increases in manmade environmental destruction!
But this issue gives me a lot of hope. I agree with Megan that seeing interest from all stakeholders (perhaps excluding the consumer who doesn’t know the issue exists, as I was not long ago) is exciting. And I’d add that it’s exciting in part because companies are seeing on their own that investing in Malagasy farmers helps their product. Often, corporate involvement comes from consumer demand, but in this case, it seems particularly earnest. That’s not to say governments can’t help facilitate corporate involvement and provide incentive to do so, or help themselves, but the level of corporate involvement right now signals the importance and agreement on this issue, which I can only hope leads to progress.