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One Island Grows 80% of the World’s Vanilla (atlasobscura.com)
367 points by sndean 58 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 172 comments

And it's even grown only in 2 very specific regions in the north of the island (where most of the cocoa production also come from). There's still huge opportunities if you have enough money and appetite for adventure to start a trading or setting up a plantation. 1ha yields on average 300-400 kg of dried vanilla, a process that takes on average 6-8 months from manual pollination to end of drying. Madagascar is quite strict on land property though, and it's one of the hot topics on the political landscape right now, foreign investors most of the time work with trusted local proxy to set up the business. I myself plan to trip to the vanilla producing region in the following months to see how it works, would be so cool to run a vanilla startup. One more thing, vanilla extract and vanilla caviar are even more valuable than the dried vanilla, and still at the hands of very few businesses. P.S. I live in Madagascar

A "vanilla startup" is perhaps one of the most interesting ideas I've read in HN comments these past few weeks.

If I may ask, are you from Madagascar or an expat? This is all quite new information to me so I am fascinated to learn more. Are there any sources you would recommend?

One a side note, I thought of a joke where his "vanilla startup" would be far from a "vanilla" startup. And that got me curious as to why the adjective vanilla refers to anything plain.


"For lexicographers, vanilla has more flavor than chocolate, because it adds a tasty synonym for plain to the English menu. The noun vanilla was first served up in 1662, but it took almost 200 years for its adjective use to become established for things, like ice and sugar, flavored with vanilla. By the 1970s vanilla was perceived as being the plain flavor of the ice-cream world, and people began using the word itself to describe anything plain, ordinary, or conventional."

> why the adjective vanilla refers to anything plain


FWIW, I think it's fair to push back on bad use of language even as I'm not prescriptive in general. Using "vanilla" to mean "plain" is just wrong and bad. It's possible to make plain, unflavored ice-cream. Vanilla is obviously a real flavor.

Yes and no. I mean, a "regular" pizza is understood to be a cheese pizza, the default or base pizza. I think vanilla ice-cream is the regular pizza of the ice-cream world.

A cheese pizza is a PLAIN pizza, just the core ingredients with nothing extra.

A plain donut or plain bagel are the things without any extras.

A plain cake is rare but is a cake without extra flavors or frosting or whatever. When it just has chocolate even, people still call it a "chocolate cake" and maybe "plain chocolate cake" but rarely or never simply "plain cake". And because the default for cake is to be chocolate, nobody would be crazy enough to say "vanilla cake" to refer to unadorned chocolate cake. So the use of vanilla to mean regular/plain isn't a lost cause! It's worth criticizing to not lose its real meaning.

The pizza analogy really would work like this: say that pepperoni pizza was so common, everyone had that or more complex things and nobody ever had a simple cheese pizza. Then imagine people start using "pepperoni" to mean plain/regular. Metaphorically, they'd start saying "eh, that one night stand — the sex was just pepperoni".

Okay, so, upon reconsideration, it's not "plain" or "regular" or "popular" that vanilla refers to. It's original, as in the first thing that seems default and was around before other stuff. These metaphors are complex.

But I happen to think we should notice when we use metaphors and consider their meaning, question them, use them thoughtfully…

Wtf, no Finn would agree on a "regular" pizza existing.

Salmiakki pizza.

Checkmate, Finn.

I think that ship has sailed, since the meaning has been in use for almost 50 years now.

As someone who can't stand the use of "they" as a singular pronoun, I also understand fights against the evolution of language are battles that I won't win.

“They” as a singular, gender neutral, pronoun dates back to the 14th c. Practically every word you use postdates its use that way. The use of “literally” to mean “figuratively” is nearly as old.

> The use of “literally” to mean “figuratively” is nearly as old.

Please please don't say that. It is not being used to mean that. It is being used in a figurative way to mean "very". This is an ironic but relatively minor shift. It's in no danger of becoming its own opposite.

It’s no different than saying “really”. As in, “I’m really ready to kill myself”. Of course, it doesn’t mean “in reality”. It’s an intensifier, just like “literally”

In case anyone was curious, https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/literally states R"(This type of usage is common in informal speech ("she was literally in floods of tears") and is attested since 1769.)"

And I'm willing to bet they use the singular they quite often without even realizing it

If you want to watch helplessly as a word is ruined in real time, I recommend "iconic". I'm not even sure what it's supposed to mean any more: in informal speech it seems to be a synonym of "awesome", which by now has devolved into another word for "good".

The ship may have sailed, but we can still turn it around! I like the idea of recapturing "vanilla" as not meaning "plain."

Singular they is a totally different issue.

Vanilla = plain is a metaphor.

Singular they is a syntax issue.

These are processed totally differently in our minds/brains. Both we come to accept with enough usage and good attitude, but they have very different significance in language.

Most people who don't start knowing singular they find it a true syntax error, the sort like a P600 response in an EEG test. It's deeply irksome. But then with familiarity, it goes away.

Metaphors don't have such a deep language processing issue, they just have semantic meaning that we accept or not and our objections live at a far more intellectual level.

Most wouldn't consider starting a farm or a ranch a "startup" in the usual sense. There are many people starting farms every year the US. Things are very different compared to a tech startup, with much higher capital costs (land, rent, equipment). There are special USDA loans available: https://newfarmers.usda.gov

@matthewwiese I'm native of Madagascar. In fact a lot of french "expats" and madagascan living abroad are setting up small trading/exportation operations for the french/european market, only a few hundreds kilograms per year is enough to sustain an equivalent of a US upper class revenue. Wikipedia offers a good overview of the thing https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanilla

OT, but why are immigrants called expats when they're from anglophone nations?

Immigrant is the English word that denotes someone moving permanently to a new country. Emigrant means someone going to another country permanently. That is to say, moving to Canada from the US one would be considered an immigrant in Canada and an emigrant in the US. An EXPATRIATE(expat for short) is someone working or living in a country not of their origin, and still consider themselves to be whatever nationality they are from. Typically used in the UK or anywhere else that speaks English. Not necessarily meant to be exclusionary of other nationalities.

That may be technically correct, but that is unfortunately not the common usage. Regardless of how long you intend to stay in a country, people from the non white countries are almost always called immigrants. I've almost never heard an H1B worker called an expat instead of an immigrant.

I don't know anything about H1Bs, but I've worked with a number of foreign (non-US) multi-nationals, and their executives that are sent on a tour to run their US subs are indeed called (by USians and by the home office) "expats" (or "expatriates").

It might be an executive thing?

(This would include companies like Sony, Nomura, Toshiba, Honda, BMW or even Saudi Aramco - all having US subs)

Most H1s are expats — however, in almost any H1 forum or being around H1s for any amount of time, inevitably they talk about getting their green card and citizenship. Countless stories, even on HN about how unfair the green card process is for H1s. You almost never have Germans in Shanghai discussing strategies for gaining Chinese citizenship. Many, many H1s are in the US because they specifically want to permanently settle here — that makes them (attempted) immigrants.

When I was in China, the Indians working tech there were referred to as expats just like the Germans and British — because they didn’t have any intent to permantly relocate to China.

Not everything is a racist conspiracy. Intent of the foreigner is the key factor in their expat vs. immigrant status. Generally people immigrate from poor to rich countries, because they would prefer to live permenantly in a nicer place. Immigration the other way around is quite rare. Not a lot of British are clamoring to immigrate to Bangladesh: a Brit working there would rarely be called an immigrant because they aren’t. They’re an expat. They have no intent to make Bangladesh their home. A Bangladeshi on an H1 visa almost always has a green card and eventually citizenship as their goal: thus they would be immigrants.

H1B's usually terminate in a green card. Maybe you meant another kind of visa?

This might get me some flak, but IMHO it's an unconscious double standard for many people and it's also not exclusive to the English language.

Germans do something similar, a German who moves to another country, even if it's Thailand for retirement or because life in Germany supposedly doesn't work for them, is called an "Auswanderer" and usually has a rather positive connotation of being "worldly" and well traveled.

Guess how many people call immigrants "Einwanderer" with a positive connotation? Pretty much nobody.

Some might argue there's an economic dimension to this, like German pensioners bringing their money to the other country, but that also doesn't always apply: There are plenty of Germans who are migrating because they have economic troubles in Germany and think they could work it better elsewhere.

As unbelievable as that might sound to most people outside of Germany, there are so many of them that VOX Germany has a whole Docu-Soap about Germans migrating to other countries, and it's been running for nearly 12 years with great success [0].

[0] https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodbye_Deutschland!_Die_Auswa...

Man, rolling nationality + expat/immigrant around is exposing some interesting biases.

For some nationalities, expat sounds more natural, for some immigrant. The British and French get to be expats even if they live in the US, the Germans only if they live outside the US. Canadians don't get to be expats or immigrants, they're just Canadians.

I wonder how broad or narrow these biases are; are these something I picked up from widespread American culture, or just personal linguistic biases?

I don't think it matters what they are called. The connotations are attached to the people, not the word. Change the words and it becomes a euphemism treadmill.

> The connotations are attached to the people, not the word.

Language is a living thing.

If you reserve usage of certain terminology to specific people, then negative connotations can easily attach themselves to both of them in combination, thus fundamentally changing how positive/negative certain terminology is perceived by the general population.

We've been witnessing this live, in reality, for these past years: If you talk about "immigrant crime" often enough many people will see most, if not all, crime in the context of supposedly increasing immigration.

Completely ignoring any other contributing factors to crime, completely ignoring actual crime statistics and trends. [0]

[0] https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/statistics/...

In my experience, people have come to use expat to describe someone who is temporarily or provisionally living elsewhere (e.g. Gone to London to work for a few years). Immigrant is often used for people who have moved with a permanent intention.


An expat is someone "on assignment", who has and expects strong ties with their home country. People who fit this description tend to frequently seek help from their own consulates, for example. It's particularly relevant for Americans because we tax ourselves even when overseas.

An emigrant (as seen from the source country) or immigrant (as seen from the destination country) is someone who has (usually permanently) moved and now expects primary services and sovereignty from their new home country.

I highly doubt that the distinction is strictly an anglophone concept, although perhaps it's related that they sound similar and have similar roots.

That's the difference, and it is inevitably an international one (e.g. we happily adopted the English term "expat" here in Germany) because it only exists across borders. But the difference gets muddied a lot because one is associated with much higher status than the other and everybody will naturally try for the higher status label if there is the remote chance of getting away with it.

Higher status? "People who hang out with diplomats", try beating that. If you routinely dine at your embassy you'd sure be considered "expat" even if you are from Afghanistan. Of course only a tiny fraction of expats would actually do this, but it illustrates the idea. A more practical line of distinction: would they seems their children to regular local schools? If they insist on private "international schools", then it's "expat", otherwise only if a return date is known.

I've usually seen "expat" used when it's more relevant where the person came from than where they emmigrated to. "Immigrant" being used for the reverse.

E.g. If you were born in Madagascar and moved to Belgium: You're a Madagascan expat because we're talking about Madagascar, but you might be referred to as an immigrant to Belgium if we're talking about Belgium.

"Expat" has colonial overtones: if one was sent to the colonies they were an expat; if one moved from the colonies to the ruling country, they were an immigrant. That's become fuzzier with time, but labeling of "expats" almost always implies being from a rich country, and not integrating into the foreign society.

From an administrative perspective in the US an immigrant is someone who moves to the US with the intent of staying. Work and other temporary visas are called non-immigrant visas, and for example when I applied for my E-2 visa I had to clearly state that I had no intent to immigrate in the US (though I was applying to work in the US, I'm not an investor despite what the visa is called). As I fully intend to leave, I didn't have to lie about it.

Even in a more casual context, I know a lot of Japanese expats in US, and have never heard of any of them being called an immigrant: most come from one of the big Japanese banks (Mitsui Sumitomo, UFJ, etc.) and stay in NYC for two to five years, before heading back either to Japan. Cultural quirk: Japanese people are usually sent abroad right after purchasing a house in Japan, the management line of thought being that with the associated mortgage they won't quit even if they don't want to go abroad.

English speakers are often reluctant to refer to themselves as immigrants, due to pervasive anti-immigrant rhetoric in most English speaking countries.

The funniest manifestation of this is letters to the Daily Mail where the writer moans on about all the immigrants in England before revealing that they’re an ‘expat’ living in Spain.

Edit: incidentally, it’s not universal in English speaking countries. Irish media, for instance, will rarely refer to an Irish person living abroad, temporarily or permanently, as an expat; they’re an emigrant. And immigrants from other English speaking countries would normally be referred to as immigrants, not expats.

It depends if you plan to stay (immigrant) or not (expat). Since most long term visas in the US terminate in a green card, we use immigrant more often than not to describe those who come to the US on an H1 or as PRs.

Also immigration primarily occurs from poorer developing countries to richer developed countries, so the label immigrant is used to describe long term foreigners since it is likely that they actually are. In contrast, in primarily emigrant countries (like say China), the immigrant label will almost never be true, so something else is used instead.

The definition of expatriate (noun) is any person who lives outside their native country. It's a synonym of migrant. An immigrant is "someone from a foreign land", so the only difference appears to be the "settling" part (an expat/migrant has settled somewhere else, an immigrant is simply _from_ another country.)

This is based on the 1.5 minutes I just spent looking these up and is only based on definition (not usage).

Migrant suggest some sort of ongoing movement. "Migrant labour" is people who move back and forth chasing work, often inside a single country. An expatriate is someone living in a semi-permanent state outside their home country.

I'd describe someone moving from one part of the US to another on a seasonal basis, someone chasing farm work, as a migrant. I'd call a canadian working for a period of year at a US firm an expatriate. The former is under a continual state of movement that the later is not.

Many gulf countries don’t grant permanent residency or citizenship even if one is born there to legal migrants. So they are expats

Yet, the SE Asian workers in the Gulf aren't given that title. If you are an American, European, or Australian you are an expat. If you are Indian you are just a migrant worker.

Since when is India in South east asia?

Are Indian business executives ‘migrant workers’?

Even in the Gulf countries, in many contexts, expat is used as a synonym for "white people", or at least people from rich countries. I used to live in Kuwait. In other countries it refers to any foreigners.

silly wording around the streets. you're an expat if you're rich. immigrant if poor.

class connotations. you'll see it applied to foreign, non-anglo elites as well.

expat = expatriate (someone living outside their home country)

from the latin expatriare meaning to leave one's own country

This is a hot topic among expat communities. As someone that was an expat for 12 of the past 20 years, I have some strong feelings about it. Expat implies (and literally means) someone outside of their home country. The key element here is “home.” An immigrant is someone who leaves their “home” for a new home country permanently.

For example, I was an American expat in France for the past 4 years (and in Mexico and Asia before that,) only just recently having returned to the US. I had no intent on permentantly settling in France. There are plenty of long term German, French and Dutch, Japanese expats in China (not anglophone obviously,) but they are almost entirely never intending (or able to,) become citizens of China. They are expats. They work a job for 2+ years, but they never intend to become Chinese. Nor are they floating around city to city each year picking up seasonal jobs as is the case for migrants.

An H1B worker from India in California is also an expat, up until the point where they are intending to become a citizen and stay permenantly — in which they become immigrants. An Indian H1 who is after a green card though, becomes an immigrant because of their intent to permantly change home countries.

“Migrant” worker versus expat is another nuance and it is because historically, migrant workers, by definition, migrate temporarily based on the availability of seasonal work. Migrant workers, by definition don’t stay in one place very long — they would typically work a farming season and then move to the next place where a harvest is coming.. like migratory birds going south for the winter. A migrant worker doesn’t stay in one place very long: they migrate depending on where the work is and ideally, return home between temporary jobs. America used to have a robust guest worker program in the 1950s-1960s and people from Mexico would cross the border to work the harvests, then go back home when the season was finished.

In short: an expat is someone living for some longer length of time in a country outside their own with the intent to eventually go back home. Expat is a “temporary” status characterized by long stints in one place away from home. An immigrant is someone that leaves their origin country permenantly. A migrant is someone that follows the harvest (i.e. seasonal jobs) and returns home regularly.

Some people have attached racial or class distinctions to those terms which is unfortunate because such distinctions aren’t accurate — they are the invention of (mostly white) people that seem to find offense in everything. This topic has lit expat Facebook groups and forums up with white expats attempting to put virtue Signal everyone else while ignoring the actual nuances involved. It’s much easier to engage in pseudo-intellectual outrage in order to assuage their own feeling of expat “privilege.” It was exhausting being around those sorts of people. Some white woman who is the wife of a British business executive on a full expat package in Shanghai trying to convince others that she is an immigrant is ridiculous when she’s talking about retiring one day to her country house in Yorkshire.

The TLDR is that one’s status of expat, migrant or immigrant is one of intent, not class or national origin.

Here is your problem:

> The reason that Madagascar is still on top of the vanilla game is grim: According to The Financial Times, it’s one of the few regions with the right climate that is also poor enough to make laborious hand-pollination affordable. While other countries, such as India, have dabbled in heavy vanilla production, huge swings in the international price make it a dangerous crop to grow widely

I'd find this unethical. Even if that's not a problem, automation/technology will bite you eventually, and this stuff will be grown around the world, reducing the price.

Hawaii has a producer: http://www.hawaiianvanilla.com/

Ive known friends in the South Indian state of Kerala (where the climate is very suited for vanilla cultivation) whose families are struggling to raise Vanilla as an intercrop in their existing plantations due to labour shortfall. As the article states, the main ingredient required here is cheap manual labour without which this venture is doomed to fail.

I wonder if you could grow vanilla hydroponically here in Nevada, where.. ya know, we probably have a lot of hydroponics experienced growers.

Hey I am working at MILA lab, and very interested in seeing how we can optimize or automate the pollineation process, would you be interested in getting in touch? Message me on Facebook to Mamal Amini if you are.

Apparently Indonesia produces slightly more Vanilla than Madagascar --but maybe the political situation where the beans are grown is not conducive to foreign investment.

But if the secret is hand pollination, it doesn’t have to be in Madagascar? Couldn’t it be done anywhere where the weather’s right, or indeed anywhere indoors?

A slightly more up-beat version: A single county in Pennsylvania grows 50% of the mushrooms in the United States.


Another interesting geographically focused product is rhubarb and the 9 square mile Rhubarb Triangle: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhubarb_Triangle

At one point they grew 90% of the worlds forced rhubarb (a special kind of rhubarb grown indoors).

Weird that rhubarb is native to Russia and yet I've never seen it commercially grown there. My folks had a few plants grown in our ogorod, and made a delicious drink out of it. But now that I live in the city, I don't see any rhubarb jelly or drinks in the supermarkets.

You and dreen should start a Rhubarb Fact Club: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17118067

And > 90% of America's wild blueberries come from Washington County, Maine.

This is really interesting, thanks for sharing.

> it's one of the few regions with the right climate that is also poor enough to make laborious hand-pollination affordable

It's not like I didn't know that this is how the world works, but this specific case is even more of a slap in the face. It's kinda fucked up to think that in the local specialty store merely a couple pods of vanilla (a few grams each) go for 6-7 dollars, but these folks live in poverty. But more fucked up is the implication that to keep vanilla prices down we specifically maintain these conditions, because of cheap labor.

Oh well, the artificial stuff for me from now on.

Just because there is cheap labor here does not mean they live in poverty; in fact they do not. The cost and standard of living is much lower so the wage is not as bad as you think. Sure they don't drive BMWs and don't get their coffee at Starbucks or have a $1000 iphone but they are far from living in "poverty"; since the definition of "poverty" is poorly constructed. In any case lets say we accept they live in poverty - the agricultural sales of this product and other such products are all they have to hope for. The main problem is with the years if government/military corruption and strife. If that was rid of the country would be wealthy. By not buying their products you help to worsen the poverty; if you do buy, there is hope that the money will eventually improve things. But if they have no money - things will not be improved and this market will shift elsewhere eventually.


I'm not sure if you're trying to argue whether or not many Malagasy people live in poverty, but assuming you are: have you been to Madagascar?

Much of the island's vanilla is grown in the northeast region of the country, called the SAVA region, named after the towns of Sambava, Andapa, Vohemar, and Anthala. The sole overland connection to the rest of the island is a dirt road that goes through desert and is nearly impassable during the rainy season; during the dry season, it can take 6-8 hours to traverse. Other options are either lengthy boat trips or flights. Many of the Malagasy people live in huts that are either bamboo or corrugated metal, with little or no indoor plumbing and small solar panels for electricity. Over 100 people died last year from an out break of the bubonic plague due to very poor healthcare. If that is not poverty, what is?

That said, many of the Malagasy people do seem quite happy despite the living conditions.

Maybe if GP had said "extreme poverty" it would have been more true.

The world has lots of poverty, but we are on track to rid ourselves of extreme poverty. Hopefully, it'll keep going up from there...

No way, the difference between "them" and "us" is BMWs and $1000 iPhones. That is such a dismissive perspective designed to perpetuate the power imbalance that we take advantage of. Not only is it retroactive justification for it having being intentionally created and abused, it's also plain wrong.

The difference isn't luxuries it's SURVIVAL ESSENTIALS. Like Healthcare (159th in the world), Life Expectancy (140th in the world), and Happiness (143rd in the world).

As to your argument that stopping from sending the money is going to harm the poor farmers not the corrupt government/military, I could just as easily make the reverse argument:

"If the majority of the money we send there goes only to the corrupt leadership, helping keep them in power and abusing their people, then A) Doesn't that prove that trickle-down economics don't work without regulation? Just sayin'. but more importantly B) Wouldn't STOPPING sending that money then WEAKEN that leadership, making them more susceptible to an uprising and takeover? But no, see if the people take over, you know it's not just that the money would be distributed from the leaders to the workers. They would actually start to expect rights, and prosperity growth. Which means rising prices. Which, historically, would have led to a Western-based invasion or coup (see: Republics, Banana) means the west would have to invade them and restore the status quo. "

> The cost and standard of living is much lower so the wage is not as bad as you think. Sure they don't drive BMWs and don't get their coffee at Starbucks or have a $1000 iphone but they are far from living in "poverty

The standard of living is much lower. They don't have "things" because they cannot afford them. But they do want them. This is because of poverty.

Ask them. Would you like a house with hot and cold running water? A gas supply? A bedroom for each of your children? A telly in every room? Be a two car family? Then ask them why they don't have this? They will answer: poverty and life is a struggle.

Well, the money is going somewhere, and it doesn't seem to be them for the most part. Perhaps it's more about buying directly from them and cutting out the middlemen.

> if you do buy, there is hope that the money will eventually improve things

Not with the current model of economic exploitation pursued by western firms. They will never get the money because the companies operating the plantations simply don't have to give it to them and Madagascar's ability to govern itself is completely compromised by outside money.

I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for the Nigerian people to receive the fruits of their labor as opposed to Shell, the corporation who's bribing the government to keep conditions as profitable as possible.

So they're better off if you destroy a local industry?

Instead you should figure out what part of the supply chain is causing the local farmers to not get paid (or maybe theyre the problem and need to pay their laborers more money.). And then campaign against that or make technology to effectively destroy the middle-men. There's plenty more high value products than Vanilla I assure you where the end-workers are living in poverty.

Madagascar has 2.1% unemployment and ~4.3% GDP growth rate which means doubling every 17 years though reduced by a 2.7% population growth rate.

It's problems are more corruption and political than anything else.

GDP growth as a measure of economic health of a society is a bad rule.

Here's a better rule: Completely disregard any claim about economic health, sustainability, well-being etc. if it's based on GDP.

GDP is a measure that deserves no respect and the mere use of it has caused a lot of harm to the world.

Analysis with numbers is only an oppinion.

Sure, GDP isn't a perfect measure, but if grows odds it's a good thing.

Numbers aren't the inherent problem, the problem is which numbers you use. GDP is among the worst choices for which numbers to evaluate.

GDP growing is NOT a good thing per se. It does a mix of capturing how much productivity is being commercialized (if we all paid our neighbors to do our household chores, GDP would double or something instantly with zero productivity gain), how much pay is going to non-productive or even counterproductive work (see the phenomenon of bullshit jobs^1) and ignoring externalities (growth in fossil fuel extraction and consumption, for example is overall negative for society).

It's not useful to even assume that GDP growth correlates with positive economic status in measures we actually want (i.e. measurements of overall long-term prosperity)

^1: https://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bullshit_Jobs

Sure there are degenerate aspects captured by GDP.

But at a macro level those seem unlikely to dominate the development.

If GDP is increased by disposing nuclear waste in international waters that's obviously bad. But generally speaking degenerate trends like that don't dominate economic development. I hope :)

Better perspective:

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/04/five-measures-of-grow... (note that World Economic Forum is far from some radical hippy organization)

Another perspective: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/12/doughn...

There are simple places where growth necessarily means we're beyond some limit and causing more problems the more we grow. Growth is not the goal, the goal is well-being and health. Growth is only the goal when we're under the level that maximizes well-being and have room to grow before problems start getting exacerbated.

> It's problems are more corruption and political than anything else.

So it's different from any other country how?

If you read the history of Madagascar, you'll find a rolling disaster of civil war, extreme corruption, and barely functioning government systems with few consistently protected human rights. Some of that is finally, maybe, starting to turn in a positive direction with increased stability.

Transparency International ranks Madagascar at #155 on their corruption perception index. That's not a slightly bad ranking, that means they barely have a functioning system because it's so riddled with corruption. Their neighbors on the ranking are: Zimbabwe, Cambodia, Haiti, Myanmar, etc. Venezuela for reference is presently #169.

So that's one way they're (unfortunately) different.

Heritage ranks Madagascar #119 on their economic freedom index. They receive a 32/100 score on property rights, 19/100 on government integrity, 21/100 on judicial. Their summary on rule of law:

"Although the legal structure provides protections for private property rights and secured interests in property are recognized if not entirely enforced, the vast majority of farmers do not hold the official rights to their land. A lack of training, resources, and personnel hampers judicial effectiveness, and case backlogs are lengthy. Corruption is pervasive at all levels of government."

There was no such implication.

Besides, we can reasonable expect that if (when!) labor costs go up enough I think we're likely to see automation solutions to the labor intensive portions of growing vanilla.

Your buying artificial vanilla instead of real vanulla will NOT help make people in Madagascar less poor! Indeed, it will only help make them poorer (by reducing demand for their labor). If you want to help them, you should consume more real vanilla, as that will result in more work for them, thus increasing their incomes.

Yes, we could help them even more by educating them and turning the country into, say, a software developer powerhouse. But that's not easy, and will take time. In the meantime, the only thing you can do to immediately increase their income is to consume more of what they produce.

> you should consume more real vanilla, as that will result in more work for them, thus increasing their incomes.

or you can pass laws to bring in temporary migrants from African countries to do the extra work and still keep wages down.

Growing your own vanilla isn't difficult, but it requires more greenhouse space than you might imagine. The plant grows like a vine, and it'll need to reach about 20' with multiple points of ground contact before producing pods.

(as explained to me by an orchid enthusiast)

AS someone with vanilla, I'm gonna disagree with you a bit here.

Growing your own vanilla is very difficult (assuming you're not in a place where it grows outside naturally). Not only do you need a significant amount of greenhouse space (you're right--20' minimum to flower, but the vines can grow up to 120'), you also need all the very specific orchid growing conditions--low water/nutrient, high drainage soil (or bark or similar medium), high brightness (but medium direct sun--can't let 'em burn), along with a very high humidity (vanilla orchids grow best ~80-90% humidity) and high heat (ideally not dipping any lower than 15 C, but with a bit of wiggle room). They have aerial roots, so you also need to mist with diluted nutrient mix (preferably an x-x-x fertilizer (eg: 20-20-20)) for them to get any particular growth benefit.

Assuming you can provide these conditions, you'll have to continue to provide these conditions for ~5-7 years, which is how long vanilla takes to grow from seed. Most people, however, take clippings from already healthy plants. Clippings need all the same care and effort of growing from seed, but won't flower 'til they're established and ~20 feet long (and the temperature controls are on-point for flowering), so how long they take depends on a bunch of factors, but even for a 3' clipping, you're looking at ~5 years.

So, let's say you have flowering-capable vines, at least 20', properly cared for with appropriate temperature controls to compel flowering. The vanilla flowers for one day. Furthermore, the pollination of the one-day flower must occur by hand (you cannot use natural pollinators--there's only one species of bee capable of pollinating this thing and they're not only isolated to a very specific geographic location, but they're also rather rare).

Presuming your pollination is successful it still takes, at this about, about 9-10 months for the vanilla pods to form. You'll get long green-bean lookin' things. You have to pick them as they begin to turn yellow--kinda like bananas. But the fun doesn't stop here. At this point you still have to blanche the yellowing beans, then let them sweat in a container for several weeks until you finally end up with usable vanilla pods that you might find in a store.

The process is extremely involved, incredibly time consuming and each step has a number of 'gotchas' that will ruin your vine/flowering/pollination/beans. The big effort is literally just keeping up with the very specific humidity/light/temperature/nutrient requirements for so long to even get it to be flowering capable.

Wow, that is insane. I wonder if there is some kind of opportunity here for automation and vertical farming to create economies of scale for the mass production of vanilla?

The big problem is the manual pollination and harvesting. Growing the vanilla can be done with a suitable climate in many tropical locales, but pollination requires a lot of care--you need to balance getting deep enough to actually pollinate the plant with being gentle enough to not destroy the plant. Most vanilla farmers have special tools they use to cut away parts of the flower and quickly pollinate it.

For pollination, a hummingbird-sized drone is not as far-fetched as it might sound.

dont the flowers only show for a 24hr period and if not pollinated wont produce vanilla?

Thanks for correcting me! At the time I was growing some finicky orchids already, but I'm sure the extra context is extremely helpful.

I was just wondering if 'vanilla not being hard to grow' was compared to some other orchids, which I understand to be some of the most finicky flowers to grow.

Great answer @sov, in fact if that was an easy process everyone would already have copied it [with a profit]. And it's not only about the process, the microclimates of the Sambirano valley and Sava regions of Madagascar give it a unique flavor. But that doesn't mean it can't absolutely be done anywhere else, that's only a matter of time.

How did this thing even survive in the wild long enough for humans to discover it?

It is native to Mexico, where it is pollinated by bees. But the bees only live in Mexico. Everywhere else vanilla is grown, it is pollinated by hand. I think even in Mexico, commercial growers use hand pollination.

Florida has a few native species of the vanilla orchid: https://www.fairchildgarden.org/Events-Community-Outreach/Ev...

If it weren't for the pollination issue, I would suspect that Florida might have been a natural place to produce vanilla beans.

i wonder if pollination can be achieved by autonomous drones specifically designed for it?

Wow, thanks for this detailed post - I had no idea the process was so involved and complicated!

Why can't the bees be cultivated/bred?

How long would it take to go from seed to first pod?

Probably 3-4 years before meaningful production.

I paid $32 for a 32oz jug of vanilla extract off Amazon back in 2015.

I just checked and the same container is now $140! [1]

I’m going to have to start rationing!

Check out the price graph:


[1] - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B001GE8N4Y/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_qJtl...

Why so much? Do you own a bakery or something?

Haha. No, but it never goes bad and I really liked paying $1/oz instead of more like $4/oz for the tiny bottles at the supermarket.

I do tend to make French toast for the kids a couple times a week, so we do use quite a bit. I usually just kinda splash it in the bowl, I guess I have to start measuring now!

Is that really a problem if you can supply the world's needs with 5 plants?

One of the older "life hacks" is to put a teaspoon of vanilla extract in the oven to make the house smell better. Speaking from experience: don't use more than that or you will regret it. I couldn't visit their house for a week.

It's kind of a problem in that any supply problems have pretty massive effects on the price. A cyclone hit Madagascar in 2011 which significantly reduced the year's harvest, sending the prices skyrocketing [0]. Anecdotally, there was a time during 2016/2017 where my local stores couldn't even get vanilla pods.

[0] https://moneyweek.com/chart-of-the-week-vanilla-could-soon-b...

In 2012, I was chatting with an south indian plantation owner. He had planned take advantage of this huge demand and setup a vanilla farm. But he lost all his investment within a year as the farm got plagued by disease. Not only is it difficult to cultivate, but it seems vanilla is also less resilient to diseases. Perhaps that explains why it is grown only few regions.

Which 5 plants are you referring to?

> Which 5 plants are you referring to?

It's a cooking joke, because vanilla is incredibly strong.

I said 5 plants because it's the fewest needed to be able to split out 80% without fractions.

Probably: rice, wheat, cassava, potato, banana?

You obviously need to eat some other stuff occasionally, but those plants are the staple diet for a large chunk of the world population.

It is old, but potato alone will get you pretty far: https://www.livescience.com/10163-man-eating-potatoes-2-mont...

I'd need some variety just so I didn't go insane.

One island the size of France.

Ya exactly. It might technically be an island, but calling it that makes it sound way smaller than it is.

Wait. Really?


Stupid Mercator Projection.

To save you a click, that island is Madagascar.

Ok, thanks, but there's more to the article than what island it is.

I agree the article is interesting in itself, however the title is needlessly clickbaity.

Keep in mind that 5/6ths of the vanillin used for flavoring is synthetic.

Imitation vanilla extract is also better in many cases as it can tolerate the high heat of baking where natural vanilla doesn't do as well.

Although technically correct, imitation is a deceptive term. Vanillin is the key flavoring agent found in vanilla. Synthesizing vanillin is not creating an imitation, it is synthesizing the exact same compound that exists in nature.

There is literally no point in growing vanilla to extract vanillin if vanillin can be synthesized artificially for much cheaper. Though if you're going for compounds other than vanillin that exist within the vanilla plant itself... that's a different story.

Rule of thumb in these cases is to use natural vanilla for items that do not get baked. Such as ice creams or cake frosting. And use the artificial vanilla for baked goods. And even then I lean towards the natural stuff when I bake. Real vanilla has a complexity and depth to it, like a fine cigar, you can sit and savor it.

I've found fake vanilla extract to be indistinguishable in all cooking, and far cheaper. I'm far more worried about the world's coffee supplies. :/

Madagascar provides 0.3% of the world's coffee-- you'll be fine :-) http://www.ico.org/prices/po-production.pdf

Artificial vanilla flavoring (vanillin) is actually preferred for many applications where the alcohol in true vanilla extract can't evaporate off and will harm the flavor more than the extra aromatic compounds will help.

There are tons of plants that have the same flavor profile as vanilla, just not ones that retain their flavor when dried for years on end. But if you're just making ice cream, you could just as easily use black locust flowers or whatever and no one would know the difference.

Unfortunately, you can only harvest black locust (aka Acacia) flowers for about two weeks out of the year, and they don't keep at all. Also, they're always hopelessly infested with bugs, so you have to think of bug juice when you eat them.

That said, the French have a great dessert recipe for battered/fried black locust flower beignets:

1) Snip the bunches of black locust flowers from the tree at their base stem. Maybe let them sit out in the sun for an hour on a cloth so some of the bugs can escape. Then rinse the bunches in cold water.

2) Prepare some pancake batter with maybe 30-50% extra milk, obtaining a thickness that forms ribbons as it drips from the whisk, or a bit thicker.

3) Heat up a frying pan and add a half inch of mild-flavored oil to it.

4) Hold a bunch of flowers by the stem, dip it evenly in the batter, and fry both sides until browned, then remove them to some paper towels on a plate to drip dry and cool off.

5) Sprinkle sugar evenly to taste while still warm and enjoy heaven, trying not to think of bug juice.

> they don't keep at all

Supposedly they freeze pretty well actually, never tried it though. (Or at least they maintain their flavor if not their texture, which is all that matters if you're taking them out of the recipe anyway after infusing.)

You might be able to do a preparation like orange flower water, a little bit of which is really good added to that pancake batter (and lots of baked goods - often in lieu of vanilla). I'd imagine black locust flower water might be used in a similar fashion. I'm guessing flower water is the aqueous fraction of a non-alcoholic distillation.

Also, black locust flower syrup is apparently a thing if you don't happen to have a still handy:


That seems like it would be pretty good.

Yeah it's pretty similar to orange flower water actually, but slightly more floral.

Sure, most natural flavorings have artificial substitutes, but there is a market for the natural products even if nobody could really distinguish them by taste alone.

This comment reads a bit like a non-sequitur, given Alex was talking about natural substitutes for vanilla, and not artificial ones.

Good point, hastily written and deserves the down votes :). I really meant to say that some people want natural vanilla, and will pay for it.

black lotus flowers would be a natural substitute.

Locust. Black Lotus is a Magic: The Gathering card. :-)

and about 1000x more expensive than an equivalent weight of vanilla

The substitute was not artificial. It's a natural alternative.

Is any one else going to call bull on Madagascar being described as "One Island" It's the size of the entire North East. It's twice the size of Britain.

The rest of the article's fine, but, really, click-bait much.

You can dive into more details about world trade in vanilla (who export/import it and to whom, how has the composition of exporters/importers changed over time etc) with this app:


Disclaimer: I'm part of the team that made the app.

Pro tip: if you’re near the border or a Mexican grocery store, Mexican Vanilla is absurdly cheaper!

And right now, if you're anywhere else, you can't get Mexican vanilla at all. Last year I got a half a pound for $55, today the usual dealers are all out. What vanilla they have is going for $300 or more per pound. Back in 2005, when there was a similar shortage, the market collapsed almost literally overnight when there was a better harvest in Madagascar, but there's really high demand now. A few years ago you could get PNG vanilla for $20 per pound.

Supposedly a lot of Mexican-made vanilla extracts are cut with tonka beans that aren't FDA approved. But I bet making your own extract out of Mexican vanilla beans would be a great alternative.

> In 1841, one young innovator figured out an unlikely solution. Edmond Albius was a 12-year-old slave on the French-controlled island of Réunion, in the Indian Ocean. Using a stick and his thumb, Albius pushed together the male anthers and female stigma of the vanilla flower, pollinating it efficiently.

Did nobody think of this until years after vanilla was discovered? Really?

What's really interesting is how comparative advantage takes shape. There's several everyday products that originate in just one or a few places. Additional question: why isn't Mexico the main producer?

Because every single vanilla pod needs to be hand pollinated, and the labor in Mexico is too expensive.

*One island roughly the size of Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois combined.

It's quite delicate work to hand pollinate vanilla orchids this guy tried it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_Pguwl9c1Q

Why they don't they grow it in Mexico? I'm missing something I know. It would seem that having bees pollinate the vanilla flowers in Mexico would be cheaper than having people do it in Madagascar. Thoughts?

It’s like this with almost all crops. In their natural habitat there are also pests which has evolved to parasite the plant. This usually makes large scale agriculture difficult or even impossible. By moving a crop to some place far away you remove the natural enemies of the crop, which makes growing the crop much easier, at least for a grace period of a few decades, or even a few centuries.

Thanks! Learned something new today.

The silver:vanilla ratio really drove home that it's not just "location, location, location" but the rise in global population and global incomes drives the value of 'location'.

Madagascar isn't the smallest island on Earth, you know.

Indeed, Madagascar is larger than many nations. It's not surprising that a single nation should dominate trade in a particular good. About 60% of the world's cork comes from the Spain and Portugal which together have about the same landmass as Madagascar.

I wonder why they can’t import the necessary bees and eliminate most of the manual labor from the process?

Yes, let's import an alien species in a closed ecosystem. What could go wrong?

Granted, I guess I should have asked in the past tense? Why didn’t they? And why don’t local bees work in pollinating the vanilla vines?

It’s suprisigly complicated. The first link seems not to have had success (but it’s a surprisingly interesting read) and the second suggests that a specific, nearly extinct bee is needed.



It is quite surprising this hasn’t happened yet, what with all the other bad ecological decisions that get made in the furtherance of industrial farming. Not that I don’t like vanilla or food or anything. I’m just surprised, it seems kind of an obvious business move. Maybe the bees wouldn’t survive?

Or seems that a specific variety of bee is required.


Too large to get in the flowers (is what I've heard).

Even Mexico relies on hand pollination. The bees are not reliable enough for mass crops.

All of china relies on hand pollination.

When I first moved here 20+ years ago. Doing a summer trip on the highway and windshield and front grill of the car would be covered with insects. Now ... hardly anything. Whatever is killing off the bees, is a big problem. But we may have also irreversibly killed off many other insects. It's actually shocking to me, no one actually noticed the change.

An interesting challenge: build a small tree/pole-climbing robot that would methodically pollinate all flowers (manipulators, image recognition).

See my reply to a comment with the same great grand parent. It’s suprisingly complicated and seems tricky for even skilled humans.

Maybe training monkeys would be an easier solution.

Isn't the real question, whether or not we can cultivate the Melipona bee in greenhouses?

Something similar is the case with Maple syrup.

The island of Canada.

Not really. A very large %age of Canadian Maple syrup comes from St. Josephs Island in Ontario.

One island grows 99% of the world’s kangaroos.

So, I assume everyone else's first thought after reading this was: Let's build a vanilla flower pollination robot using deep learning to process RGB camera images and help guide the robot actuators. Startup, anyone?

Edit: turns out this is, in fact, not a unique thought:

"Implementation of Automated Vanilla Pollination Robotic Crane Prototype, 2017":


(No deep learning, but I guess these people weren't desperate for funding.)

I think if you could work a blockchain in there somewhere you might have an idea worth funding. ;)

Because screw those poor farmers?

Bill Penzey likes to send out political emails to his customers as well. He requested that Trump voters apologize. It's hard to take anything he says seriously because of his poor business acumen.

One island contains 100% of the world’s Mongolians — Eurasia.

I’m sure there are Mongolians living in the United States and elsewhere.

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