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Vanilla harvest at Veinte Soles Ranch in Veracruz Vanilla harvest at Veinte Soles Ranch in Veracruz. milenio/fanny miranda

Synthetic vanilla edges out Mexico’s production of the genuine variety

Low prices have discouraged production, most of which is in Veracruz

Although Mexico gave the world the vanilla bean, cultivation of the crop that the Spaniards introduced to Europe is at the point of vanishing here, says a government expert.

A shift in employment patterns, farmers leaving vanilla production, and a global preference for cheaper synthetic vanilla for industrial use have caused vanilla farming in Mexico to decline over the years, said Juan Hernández, a researcher with the National Forestry, Agriculture and Livestock Research Institute (Inifap).

According to Hernández, vanilla is grown by 4,000 farmers — 70%-80% of them in Veracruz — on a total of 1,000 hectares of land.

“[Mexico] produces less than 20 tonnes of vanilla for export, not even 1% of the total worldwide,” he said.

The decline in the last decade is due to a combination of low prices discouraging production, as well as the fact that many people who might have been farmworkers on vanilla plantations have left Veracruz or even the country in search of work elsewhere, he said.

“The vanilla used in industry for flavoring foods, drinks, and perfumes has been impacted by the use of artificial products,” he said.

Vanilla farmers have also been targeted in the past for theft, he said, which discouraged some producers from continuing to grow the crop.

A 2019 report by National Public Radio in the U.S. highlighted the problems vanilla growers in Papantla, Veracruz, had with theft by criminal gangs as the prices for the crop went up due to poor weather that year in other vanilla-producing countries like Madagascar. At that time, vanilla was fetching 10,000 pesos a kilo but the price is currently about half that.

These days, the price of Mexican vanilla has gone down significantly — 500,000 pesos a tonne, said Hernández. However, he also says that Mexico has incentives to invest in the resurrection of vanilla farming. Countries like France, Japan, Germany and the United States still are interested in buying the Mexican variety, he said.

“According to distributors, there is a 100-tonne deficit in Mexican vanilla to supply certain industries and sellers from these countries who prefer Mexican vanilla for its quality and distinctive aroma,” Hernández said.

Hernández is putting his faith in reviving Mexico’s vanilla industry with a new system Inifap has designed for intensive cultivation, which he says would mean larger crop yields. The traditional method, he said, yields 200 kilos of vanilla per hectare, whereas Inifap’s new method would yield 1.5 tonnes on the same amount of land.

However, obtaining a higher yield this way would likely require training and capital outlay by the farmers, he acknowledged, including the purchase of high-quality plants, fertilizer, irrigation equipment and other technology.

Currently, Mexico exports 95% of its cultivated vanilla and only 5% is sold nationally, where it is mostly used in creating extract or in artisan foods.

Source: El Financiero (sp)

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