ASK most people where vanilla comes from and they will either not know or say that it comes from Madagascar. Madagascar is the largest producer of vanilla, but it is also cultivated in a few other countries, including Malaysia which is at the start of its vanilla journey.

Last year Kairos Agriculture launched the First Smart Vanilla Farm in Penang. The farm sits on 2.43ha of land and has vanilla as its anchor crop, with other crops, including herbs and spices, also being produced on this hi-tech farm.

Vanilla production in Malaysia is still small-scale but perhaps, in the next few years, that will change.

Originating in Mexico, vanilla spread across the world as explorers brought it back from their travels, in order to cultivate it in their own country. However, there was a problem. Only the Melipona bee can access the pollen on vanilla plants and the travellers did not bring the bees back with them. The absence of the Melipona bee meant that the vanilla did not produce any vanilla pods, as the plants could not be pollinated.

This was eventually resolved by the Spaniards who worked out how to do the pollination by hand. To this day, the vast majority of vanilla plants are hand pollinated.

Here are some other things you may not know about vanilla.

1. Vanilla is the second most expensive spice on the planet, after only saffron.

2. About 80% of the world’s vanilla is grown by small hill farmers in Madagascar. Other countries which produce vanilla include Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, India, Uganda and, more recently, Malaysia.

3. Vanilla ice cream is regularly reported as the world’s favourite. Chocolate occasionally gives vanilla a run for its money but whatever survey you look at, vanilla always features high on the list, if not at the top. This is somewhat surprising, given the huge range of flavours available nowadays, including cookie dough, rocky road and cheesecake, but it is testament to vanilla that it has stood the test of time. 

4. We often refer to the vanilla bean, probably as the final product looks like a bean pod, but vanilla is actually an orchid.

The final product of vanilla, the so-called vanilla pod. The commodity has experienced price volatility, though its global market was worth some RM510 million in 2018. – Pixabay pic, April 28, 2021
The final product of vanilla, the so-called vanilla pod. The commodity has experienced price volatility, though its global market was worth some RM510 million in 2018. – Pixabay pic, April 28, 2021

5. The price of vanilla is volatile. In 2013, it was at about US$20 (RM82) per kg. In 2017, it peaked at about US$600 per kg which, briefly, made it more expensive than silver. Suspected reasons for this spike, included increased demand, market deregulation and money laundering. Cyclone Enawo, which made landfall in Madagascar on 7 March 2017, wiped out at least 90% of the crop in Antalaha and 80% of the crop in Sambava. This was another reason for the price rise. In 2020, the price of vanilla fell back to between US$50-US$100 per kg.

6. In 2018, the global vanilla market was worth about US$510 million. This is expected to rise to US$710 million by 2026. This growth is being driven by the ever-increasing demand for frozen desserts and bakery products. Given the volatility of the supply chain there will undoubtedly be concerns whether the sector can keep up with demand and how this will affect prices.

7. Vanilla extract gets its flavour from a molecule called vanillin, which is found in vanilla beans. The extract is made by soaking the beans in a mixture of ethyl alcohol and water. The exact standard for what can be called vanilla extract varies by country but, in the USA for example, pure vanilla extract has to contain at least 35% alcohol and 380g of vanilla beans per 3.8 litres. In comparison, vanilla essence typically comprises water, ethanol, propylene glycol, emulsifiers and colours/flavours which are chemically produced. Vanilla extract usually has a more distinguishable vanilla flavour. 

8. According to a 2016 Scientific American article, only 1% of vanilla flavour comes from actual vanilla orchids. This is challenging for companies that want to promote their products as natural. This has led to innovative marketing such as saying that products are flavoured with “flecks of Madagascar vanilla beans”. There is a constant need to either create synthetic vanilla (from things like pine bark, clove oil, rice bran, and lignin), or to increase global production of the real thing. Entrepreneurs are always looking at ways of plugging the demand gap for vanilla in innovative ways. As an example, Dr. Ian Klein has said that he can produce natural vanilla from corn fibre.

9. Vanilla flowers only bloom one day a year and are only open for 6-9 hours and, if not pollinated by midday, the blossom will fall off the vine. Hand pollination is done with a small sliver of wood and an experienced farmer can pollinate 1,500 blossoms a day. 1kg of cured beans requires 600 hand-pollinated blossoms. 

10. A newly planted vanilla plant takes three years before it will produce any blooms. Once pollinated, it takes 6-9 months before the pods can be harvested. The time of harvest is critical as more mature pods are richer in flavour, but overripe pods are worthless. It takes a further six months of processing and maturing of the vanilla pods before they are ready to be sent out to the customer.

The demand for vanilla, since it was first discovered, has always been there and it looks like it is set to increase. It does take a long time to grow and harvest the crop, which is why it is so expensive. Given the significant difference between supply and demand there appears to be opportunities for farmers to diversify, start farming vanilla and get some of the action of the world’s second most expensive spice. – The Vibes, April 28, 2021

Prof Graham Kendall is chief executive of the Good Capitalism Forum and has an interest in helping and developing sustainable industries, in line with the principles of good capitalism