The world-wide vanilla shortage is coming to an ice cream cone near you.
Pastry chefs and ice cream makers alike are looking to cut back overall consumption due to the rising cost of fair-trade vanilla, meaning that the recipes of our favorite summer sweets could be effected.
And we have no one but ourselves to blame. The high demand from consumers, in recent years, switching to all-natural foods has caused the shortage.
The problem was then compounded by major corporations like Nestle and Hershey’s that, in response to consumer demand, declared they were then switching from cheaper, chemically created synthetic versions of vanilla to all-natural varieties, too — meaning that they want vanilla from orchid seeds, and not factories.
Factories can crank out the synthetic stuff around the clock, but there just aren’t enough vanilla pods in the world to meet demand.
A few years ago, a 1-gallon bottle of organic, fair-trade vanilla would cost about $64 — today, $245. For small sweets shops around the country, that figure would put them out of business.
To understand the shortage, you must understand the labor that goes into the harvest of the vanilla crop. In fact, it’s one of the most labor intensive crops on Earth.
Vanilla beans are the seeds of an orchid. In Mexico, the flowers are pollinated by birds and insects, but most of the world’s vanilla is grown in Madagascar where those natural pollinators don’t exist. This means, that each orchid is pollinated by hand, with a stick.
But that’s just the first step.
The seeds have to be socked in hot water then wrapped in blankets for 2 days, then left to sweat in a wooden box. They’re then laid out to dry in the hot sunshine, but only for one hour each day.
The whole production takes months.
It’s so time- and labor-intensive that some farmers abandoned their crop over the past decade when the global prices were too low.
Then, another set-back. In March, a cyclone hit Madagascar, wiping out as much as a third of the crop, and pushing prices even higher.
According to NPR, a bag of vanilla beans in Madagascar now costs 10 times what it did just five years ago.
But there is hope. Some farmers have begun to set-up shop once again, but we’ll have to be patient: Orchids take about four or five years to start producing seeds. But when that hits, we’ll be ready for our all-natural vanilla ice cream cones once again.