Are We Running Out of Vanilla?

Surely, there’s no greater sign that a child has matured to adulthood than the realization that vanilla is not a waste of an ice cream flavor, but rather the best flavoring in the universe.

Although I have no data backing that up, I feel comfortable saying it. For substantiated claims that feel unsettling, look no further than Melody Bomgardner’s C&EN story about the looming vanilla crisis that inspired our latest video.

But Melody published her story in September and Sarah filmed her video in October. So we decided afterward to get in touch with Josephine Lochhead at Cook Flavoring Company for an update on the vanilla situation. Cook’s has been keeping its finger on the vanilla pulse by visiting plantations in Madagascar—be sure to check out the firm’s blog for more info. We started exchanging emails with Josephine at the beginning of December, after she returned from Madagascar’s Sambava region with some mixed news.

“The farmers I spoke with all reported heavy blossoming and expectations of a large, healthy crop for 2017,” she writes. “However, the large Madagascar exporters are reporting poor flowering and expectations of a light crop.” She adds that she saw loads of beans and abundant flowering in Sambava. It’s possible that vanilla is simply growing better in Sambava than elsewhere, but exporters could be trying to keep bean prices high with their pessimistic reports, Josephine says.

She adds that each village she visited had between 2 and 6 metric tons of cured vanilla on hand and that some farmers were willing to sell it at rates below $200 per kg. Major vanilla exporters are currently quoting prices around twice that, according to data shared by Cook’s.

Looking at the data, you might see another reason Josephine believes vanilla prices could soon drop: The current trend in vanilla prices closely mirrors a surge from about 15 years ago. “I clearly remember the crash of the last crisis,” she writes. “In one day, we saw prices drop from $425 to $200. By the end of the week, prices were under $20/kilo.”

Josephine also points out that countries other than Madagascar have ramped up their vanilla production, notably India, Indonesia, and New Guinea. Vanilla production in Madagascar has been off its peak for several of the past years, which factors into the current shortage, but has also given other regions time to increase their production significantly (vanilla vines take 3-4 years to produce quality beans, Josephine says).

Still, this is just a forecast, Josephine reminds us: “Reports from bean brokers are that prices will double and that it will be 2018 before we see relief. However, my opinion is that prices are poised to go down in 2017,” she explains. “No one can know for sure where the price will be in the coming months.”

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