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Industry Snapshot: Vanilla 2009 Conference Day 1

Rick Brownell, Virginia Dare

More in vanilla.

Vanilla 2009, the fourth biannual conference was held recently in Jamesburg, New Jersey. The conference was organized by Daphna Havkin-Frenkel of Bakto Flavors and Rutgers University, together with Faith Belanger, Rutgers University; Juan Hernandez Hernadez, Mexico’s National Institute of Forests, Agriculture and Fisheries (INIFAP); and Michel Grisoni, Biological Systems Department of CIRAD (Reunion Island).

The conference was themed “Vanilla Diseases” in response to recent reports of widespread Fusarium among vanilla vines in Madagascar—a region that has historically produced about 70% of the world supply of vanilla beans. Clearly, it addressed both the causes of and possible solutions to vanilla disease, including physical remedies, biological controls and genome enabled technologies.

Read Day 2 presentations here.

Fusarium: an Historical Perspective

The conference opened with Hank Kaestner, a consultant with Dammann and Co. discussing a historical perspective on Fusarium in the vanilla industry. He cited that the first reference to Fusarium in vanilla dated back to 1898 at a United States government research station in Puerto Rico; since then, the disease has significantly impacted vanilla in several countries including Indonesia, India and China. Kaestner, who was also among the first to note and report on Fusarium in Madagascar early in 2008, explained that the fungus is an opportunist, infecting a plant which is already weakened by stress. According to him, the conversion to semi-intensive cultivation of vanilla, promoted by the European Union in the late 1990s, is a probable cause of vine stress in Madagascar; the other is the over pollination of vines. He further said that increased incidence of major cyclones hitting Madagascar over the past decade has spread salt in the form of sea spray, thus significantly weakening a majority of vines growing near the coast.

To conclude his presentation, Kaestner highlighted his concerns about vanilla’s future, advocating a return to traditional planting and cultivation methods as the best near term defense against the Fusarium threat.

Survival Strategies

Next, Virginia Dare’s Rick Brownell pointed out eerie similarities between the present vanilla market conditions and those in 1999. In his presentation “Is another Vanilla Crisis Inevitable?” Brownell identified what he considered to be the root causes of the crisis including supply and demand, limited genetic diversity, the plight of the vanilla farmer, and the absence of a free market for vanilla beans. Looking to the future, he outlined, nine strategies for industry survival, one of which suggested price supports for vanilla farmers (modeled after the price supports for corn implemented in the United States under Roosevelt’s New Deal) whereby the government loans money to farmers so that they can store vanilla when prices are low. According to Brownell, this strategy would help farmers sell their crop to repay the loan when the prices were up, and likewise keep the crop off the market when prices were depressed, thus avoiding further downward pressure.

Moving to the next survival strategy, Brownell discussed the expansion of genetic diversity of vanilla by collection, identification and cross breeding with numerous wild species and varieties. To simplify the process, he recommended reaching out to universities and museums; seed, fungicide and pesticide manufacturers; government agencies; and food and beverage companies in order to build consortiums of participants bringing different resources, technologies, and political and market expertise. On a brighter note, he said that although the market was likely to become tight in the next year or two, a vanilla crisis of the magnitude experienced previously is not necessarily inevitable. To support this he said that there is a much larger pool of mature vines and carryover beans today than there were in 1999, and that food and beverage manufacturers are likely react much more quickly to any hint of a repeat crisis, thus limiting the potential impact.

Brownell’s presentation was followed by a discussion on “Impediments to the Growth of Vanilla in Mexico,” by Juan Hernandez Hernadez of INIFAP. Hernandez said that Mexico produces aromatic vanilla beans that surpass in quality even the finest Bourbon beans from Madagascar, and cited a study presented at Vanilla 2007 (by Thomas Hartman of Rutgers University) that identified chemical compounds unique to Mexican vanilla. However, the higher costs of production (particularly labor and land) and variations in weather patterns have, in the recent years, severely limited the production and demand for Mexican vanilla, he noted.

Disease Management Strategies

The next presentation of the conference was an in-depth discussion by Sandra Lepers-Andrzejewski on the disease management strategy developed for intensive cultivation of vanilla in French Polynesia. Lepers-Andrzejewski explained that although vanilla production in French Polynesia has been reinvigorated by promoting intensive cultivation in shade houses, many pathogens thrive under conditions of intensive cultivation. For viruses, she said that plantations were monitored regularly for virus detection and identification, and additional effective control methods—such as making sure that cuttings are virus-free, frequent washing of hands and tools, weed removal, and using insect-proof netting to cover shade houses—were implemented; she also stressed the significance of the removal and burning of infected plants. In addition, Lepers-Andrzejewski said that while fungal diseases have also been identified, they are more difficult to control. She further cited some causes of and remedies for fungal disease in intensive cultivation including inadequate mulching, poor drainage and lack of ventilation. In conclusion, she envisioned the use of molecular tools for plant selection and breeding for traits including disease resistance and bean size, in the future.

Research and Study Findings

The next presenter at the conference was Michel Grisoni, an agro-virologist at CIRAD (Reunion Island), who together with this team is researching vanilla diseases and genetics. Grisoni’s presentation focused on field studies conducted from 1997 to 2009 to assess the incidence of pests and disease that hamper or threaten vanilla development in Madagascar and other islands in the Southwest Indian Ocean. Grisoni offered an in-depth overview of Fusarium in vanilla, including the causes and symptoms, and citied as possible causes slow plant growth possibly inhibited by other organisms, poor plant management and an extended period of dry soil. He also noted some Fusarium symptoms including yellowing of the leaves, rotting roots and the formation of tendrils that originate from the stem and grow downward into the soil in search of nutrients no longer supplied by the infected root system.

Further, pointing to a recent survey of 62 separate vanilla stands in Madagascar, in which Fusarium was found to a greater or lesser degree in every one, Grisoni suggested several potential methods for Fusarium control including crop rotation, biological agents, intercropping with suppressive plants (allium and tomato for example) and selective breeding for genetic resistance; genetic resistance, according to Grisoni, holds significant promise.

Although amplified fragment length polymorphism (AFLP) analysis has recently confirmed the limited genetic diversity of commercially grown vanilla, Grisoni said that there are other naturally occurring species, several of which empirically seem to show resistance to fusarium and other diseases. The ultimate goal would be to develop a hybrid that would provide resistance to Fusarium while maintaining the flavor and aroma characteristics of V. planifolia.

Finally, Grisoni touched on other plant pathogens including viruses, with Cymbidium mosaic virus (CYMmv) as an example. According to him, this virus, which has been found to be widespread in Madagascar, is not, on its own, believed to be harmful to vanilla, but it may weaken the vines, causing them to be more susceptible to other harmful diseases like Fusarium. On an encouraging note, Grisoni believed that CYMmv virus might be effectively controlled by simply identifying and selecting virus-free plants for new cuttings.

The next speaker was Aaron Isaacson, a.k.a. Mr. Recipe, a supplier of spices and vanilla to many of New York’s top restaurants and chefs, who offered a refreshing vanilla lemonade to all attendees.

A Different Approach

The final presentation of first day of the conference was by James Simon of Rutgers University, who offered a different perspective on the theme of the conference. He related some strategies for Fusarium control historically applied to other crops that might be transferable to vanilla. As an example, Simon discussed a screening technique that was used to test thousands of individual basil plants for Fusarium resistance—here the plants are inoculated with controlled, purified concentrations of the specific Fusarium species known to be harmful to the target plant. Any that survive are good candidates for selective breeding for Fusarium resistance, Simon said, adding that this approach has the advantages of being low tech, low cost and relatively fast. Another strategy that Simon described related to grafting the target plant onto a host plant that is Fusarium-resistant. This technique, he said, has been used successful with crops like apples and watermelons, with one major advantage being the retention of species identity.

The meeting came to an end with a cocktail hour and a poster session that provided the attendees an opportunity to share ideas generated by the presentations and discuss additional research topics presented in the posters.

Look for part two of Brownell’s report in P&Fnow.

For a list of the posters and abstracts, visit


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