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Theft and mother nature worsen global vanilla shortage

Protecting the harvest in Bemalamatra, Madagascar. Photo: Rijasolo/AFP/Getty

The combined ravages of opportunistic thieves and destructive weather seem to portend at least three bleak years for vanilla ice cream lovers.

What's going on: Most of the world's authentic vanilla extract comes from the southeast African island of Madagascar. But in the last five years, prices have surged about 30 times for reasons including a push for greater quality and, most recently, Cyclone Enawo, which ruined much of last year's Madagascan crop, reports the BBC's Nancy Kacungira.

  • Once you sow a new vanilla plant, it takes three years before it begins to produce pods.
  • Then, from pollination to curing and drying, it takes another year to produce the extract.
  • Most commercial vanilla is synthetic. But for those longing for the real thing, these factors mean much higher prices for vanilla products, including ice cream.

The economics have had the usual effect in the world of emerging-market commodities: At night, bands of thieves swoop down and steal pods off the plants in Madagascar. And as a consequence, there has been an outbreak of murder.

  • Kacungira writes: "Several communities have tried and failed to get protection from armed police. Some have taken the law into their own hands. Villagers say in a nearby village, a machete-wielding crowd descended on five suspected gangsters — hacking and stabbing them to death."

Fun fact: Since the 19th century, synthetic vanilla has been "extracted from coal, tar, rice bran, wood pulp and even cow dung."