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Industry Snapshot: Vanilla 2009 Conference Day 1

By: Rick Brownell, Virginia Dare
Posted: December 16, 2009

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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.