Vanilla is derived from an orchid that originated in Mexico and was introduced to Madagascar in the early 19th century. Today, Madagascar accounts for much of the global production of vanilla, where there are approximately 60−70,000 vanilla farmers.

In Mexico, vanilla is pollinated by tiny, indigenous bees, which means that the plant has to be hand-pollinated in Madagascar. This is delicate, labour-intensive work and requires someone with practiced hands. While an experienced person with small hands can pollinate as many as 2,000 plants a day, vanilla farms are spread across large distances, and flowers can only be pollinated in the morning, when they are wide open. Each blossom lasts for only one day. Dried vanilla, what we know as the black vanilla pods, is only a fifth of the weight of the green vanilla, meaning that to get 10kg of dried vanilla, 50kg of green vanilla is needed. Green vanilla takes about three years to grow.

Due to deforestation (caused by illegal and legal logging, particularly for much-desired rosewood timber), bushmeat hunting, traditional slash-and-burn techniques used for clearing agricultural land, and unsustainable farming practices, Madagascar is faced with soil erosion, desertification and threats to its ecosystems. As a biodiversity hotspot, independent certification of vanilla farms in Madagascar is imperative to ensure the sustainable future of this sought-after spice, the environment in which it is grown, and the livelihoods of vanilla farmers and their families.

"Farmers who work with the Rainforest Alliance learn to increase productivity and control costs."

Rainforest Alliance certification – awarded to farms that meet the comprehensive standards of the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) – focuses on how farms are managed. The SAN standards encompass all aspects of sustainability – social, environmental and economic – and empower farmers with the knowledge and skills to negotiate for themselves in the global marketplace.

In terms of vanilla farming, soils should be loose with high organic matter content and loamy texture. Soils must be well drained, and a slight slope helps with this. Being the most comprehensive environmental criteria in existence, the SAN standards enable farmers to learn to grow smart, increasing their bottom line today, and conserving the fertile soils and natural resources on which their children will depend tomorrow. They cover an array of areas including soil and water conservation, the protection of wildlife and forests, planning and monitoring, responsible waste management, and the prohibition of dangerous pesticides and genetically modified organisms.

Additionally, the SAN standards encompass a range of worker protection issues identified by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), including: the right to organise; the right to a safe, clean working environment; the right to be paid at least the national minimum wage; the right to dignified housing (including potable water); access to medical care for workers and their families; and access to free education for children. Farmers who work with the Rainforest Alliance also learn to increase productivity and control costs, often producing higher-quality crops that can earn a better market price including a market premium.

Increasingly, consumers and businesses want to know the origins of the farm products they buy. Transparent traceability and trading policies are key to any sustainable value chain. Groups working with the Rainforest Alliance in Madagascar on vanilla production must follow a chain-of-custody manual that outlines traceability policies and involves all members of the supply chain, from producer to exporter.

"Transparent traceability and trading policies are key to any sustainable value chain."

All farmers have to indicate whether their plots are certified or non-certified. Farmers will then deliver green vanilla directly to a company that processes it into black vanilla, or process the green vanilla themselves. Most farmers and producers are part of a cooperative or association, and deliver their green vanilla to this group for processing, before it is sold on to an exporter.

The exporter is responsible for financing a group administrator to manage the producers and processors in the supply chain, ensuring that there is a traceability diagram in place, with relevant traceability records in each chain. Procedures and sanctions must also be in place − including the training of farmers, warehouse workers and drivers who are responsible at each stage of the supply chain − in order to avoid the mixing of certified and non-certified products.

As certification becomes more mainstream and the variety of, and demand for, available certified ingredients increases, the food service industry has a responsibility to ensure that it is offering the sustainable option. With products carrying the Rainforest Alliance’s little green frog seal, consumers can enjoy their food and drink − and feel good in the knowledge that they are supporting a healthier future for farmers, their families and the environment.