Today, “almost every single vanilla bean that is produced today is hand-pollinated,” according to Fairtrade America’s Linnell-Simmons — a labor-intensive process, to say the least. What’s more, the flowers themselves bloom for just one day a year, “so not only do you have to hand-pollinate, but you only have a day to do it,” says Linnell-Simmons. Post-pollination, the vanilla-orchid life cycle lasts about 12 months, meaning vanilla farmers get one harvest per year and thus one payday per year. All of this factors into the sky-high price of vanilla (in 2013, it was worth more per pound than silver, according to a 2018 report by The New York Times).
Because the ingredient is expensive, it’s easy to assume that vanilla farmers would earn liveable wages and, in turn, wouldn’t exploit forced laborers. This is not necessarily the case.
“When the vanilla price is high, there is a lot of theft. They have children and farmers sleep in the field to protect their crop,” says Gerteiser. The threat of theft leads to too-early harvests, which results in lower-quality goods, which perpetuates the cycle of poverty.
Paired with the fact that the market price of vanilla is always in flux, farmers often prepare for the worst of times by cutting corners in the best of times. “With vanilla and other crop commodities, it’s not a steady paycheck,” says Linnell-Simmons. “While the farm might be doing really well, they’ve probably experienced bad days before. They’re definitely thinking, ‘What do I need to do to weather the next storm?'”
Linnell-Simmons means that literally. Vanilla orchids are extremely sensitive to weather conditions, and experts warn the recent increase in climate change-related storms in the region puts the plants at risk. “These things don’t magically go away when the price is high for a couple of years,” she says.
“We also see that the increasing price for vanilla may motivate young people to drop out of school,” says Rina Razanakolona, a representative for the Union for Ethical BioTrade (UEBT), who is based in Madagascar. “[Through UEBT], the industry is committed to fighting child labor, and there are good programs operating, such as the Sustainable Vanilla Initiative, where they are training farmers on child rights, including types of work not allowed and age limitations.”