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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.



Author: Hugh Bollinger/Monday, May 7, 2018/Categories: natural history, sustainability, art and design, environment

                        Vanilla Ice Cream (credit: Wikicommons)

It isn't often vanilla and silver are used in the same sentence unless possibly to describe an 18th Century confection served in a silver cup. Recently, that changed dramatically when a kilogram (2.2lbs) of vanilla sold for over $600/kg and silver bullion was selling at $530/kg. Such high prices for raw vanilla will be felt by bakers, ice cream manufacturers, and consumers as it is popular around the world and ranked as American's number one flavor.

Cortez and his conquistadores found the people of present day Mexico and Central America enjoying vanilla in their food and drinks in 1520 when they reached the Aztec capitol. Meso-Americans were growing the Vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia) for its seed pods from which the flavoring was extracted. The Spanish returned to Europe with the plants where they were were grown in France and elsewhere. To produce vanilla pods, the orchid requires a specific pollinating bee that existed only in Central America so pod proudction remained a mystery until a hand-pollination method was discovered. The French then carried plants to their tropical  colonies of Reunion, the Seychelles, and Madagascar along with the instructions for pollinating them. While vanilla was soon cutivated in other tropical countries, by the end of the 19th Century these three islands became the source for 80% of world's vanilla production. Fast forward to 2017 and Madagascar alone produced nearly 85 per cent of the world’s vanilla.

                                          Vanilla vines for seed pod production (credit: Wikipedia)

So, what has caused the huge leap in prices for vanilla to be more expensive than silver? The answer shows a direct connection between environmental events and an economic commodity, even if a common flavoring.

In the past two months, Madagascar was struck by multiple cyclones including the massive Cyclone Dumazile which destroyed the nation's vanilla production. NASA tracked the tropical cyclone that grew to typhoon strength as it approached the island. Within 24 hours, Dumazile reached super-storm intensity carrying sustained winds of 120mph and gusts of up to 150mph in the process known as bombogenisis. At some locations on Madagascar, Dumazile droped rain at a rate of 6 inches/hour inches with heavier precipitation bands spotted by the Aqua environmental monitoring satellite producing rain that exceeded 8 inches/hour. All climate change models predict that as the atmosphere warms from CO2 and other greenhouse gases, the number and intensity of extreme weather events will increase.


                              Cyclone Dumazile Eye, 3-5-2018 (credit: NASA Aqua satellite)

A cyclone of this Damazile's magitude, hitting an island with limited protective services or infrastructure, created great destruction. In what became a double hit, Madagascar was then struck by Cyclone Eliakim within two weeks that slammed into the same areas of the island. These back-to-back super-storms destroyed the small farms and plantations across Madagascar's vanilla growing regions and world vanilla prices skyrocketed upwards.

So, next time you enjoy an ice cream cone, consider connecting a few dots between the environment, climate change, and the impact on a flavored treat.



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