Why Ice-Cream is so Expensive: Part Two

Part One of this report outlined the links between ice-cream and the vanilla trade, and looked at many of the human costs of Madagascan vanilla (which constitutes over 80% of the world’s supply). The prevalence of vanilla in ice-cream is massive, with one UK ice-creamery stating that it was used in over 1/3 of flavours. While vanilla prices skyrocket globally, Madagascan vanilla farmers struggle on subsistence incomes, caught in cycles of poverty. Human rights issues are everywhere, and include child labour and using young girls to pay off debts by selling them for sex. While these issues are bad enough, the contrast between the incredible value of vanilla external to Madagascar and the low pay the farmers get for it within the country (and the resulting poverty of those farmers) has led to social and political problems beyond these humanitarian concerns.

These problems start with the armed gangs which terrorize vanilla farmers and steal vanilla crops. Vanilla farmers must take drastic action to protect their crops, including sleeping in the vanilla fields. The DanWatch report from 2016 reports that all farmers interviewed had problems with thieves, and lived in fear of their lives. While farmers rely on machetes for defence, many of the thieves have guns; farmers thus have little ability to defend their crops. They do so anyway, as without the crops they will lose their income. A Guardian report from earlier this year reports that some thieves are so confident of their power that they provide advance warning of raids, warning farmers to have prepared stock for them to take. The authorities have failed to combat the problem, and this lack of response has led to locals taking justice into their own hands. The Guardian reports one case in detail, where a crowd of villagers rounded up five alleged gangsters, dragged them to the village square, and then killed them with machetes and harpoons.

Reports of these extra-judicial killings are far too commonplace, and reflect the desperation of those involved to protect themselves and their livelihoods. The lack of response from the authorities is often not just an inability to act or lack of motivation; there are regular reports of active connivance between authorities (from members of the police to politicians) and thieves. In one case, Al Jazeera reports that the head of the gendarmerie (local police) of a particular area is buying all the stolen vanilla, when he is supposed to be preventing thefts. The Guardian interviewed Clovis Razafimalala, co-founder of the environmental watchdog group Coalition Lampogno, who disclosed links between vanilla violence and corrupt politicians. Further, the vanilla trade is also used to cover smuggling illegal rosewood exports and other contraband. Harisoa Ravaomanalina, a specialist in wood anatomy at the University of Antananarivo (the capital of Madagascar), said that “a big mafia is behind this [trade] and they’re close to our government.”

An article in Political Geography earlier this year argues that “far from stabilizing development…rosewood revenues can be made to finance both the state as well as the forces that oppose it.” It traces the Madagascan political system since the 1990s and analyses the impact of rosewood in events such as the 2009 coup and the 2013 return to democracy. Governments at all levels (both collectively and powerful individual members) make money off the trade through bribes, fines and even campaign contributors from overseas importers (usually from China). The article particularly notes the boom of the trade in the pre-election period in 2013. Of particular interest is this paragraph:

“Many of the elected parliamentarians from the northeastern districts are alleged to be involved in the rosewood trade – some quite deeply – and their favoured presidential candidate, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, was elected President of Madagascar’s Fourth Republic.”

The paper further notes that several north-eastern politicians formed a political party (the Union of Independent Deputies). This party included the newly appointed Minister for the Environment, and has connections to the rosewood trade. This is particularly interesting due to the locale from which these politicians are from: the northeast, where the vanilla trade is also based. Political tactics by this group have also restricted rosewood exports to only particular routes, essentially creating a bottleneck which is controlled by the group. This caused rosewood prices within Madagascar to plummet, while the export price went up rapidly – again, similar to the vanilla trade.

The scale of this trade is massive: rosewood is the world’s most trafficked wildlife commodity, with sales just from Madagascar being worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Even the democratically-elected, pro-environment President elected in 2002 was known to profit of rosewood trades. On the day he was ousted, timber barons openly celebrated about their increased access to rosewood. While the links between the vanilla industry and political parties are less well researched, the rosewood industry has been shown to have links to government figures in multiple analyses. Rosewood traders have also been linked to the rising prices of vanilla through speculator trades – Serge Rajaobelina, an industry expert, argues that rosewood traders saw the value of vanilla rising rapidly due to their proximity to the trade, and thus bought up stocks (driving prices even higher). While the rosewood trade has slowed in recent years, these same traders still use the vanilla network to sell endangered wildlife and other products; it is unlikely that the simple change in product (especially considering how prevalent the rosewood trade still is) has ended their political dealings.

Vanilla, therefore, is not just the mechanism through which illegal contraband is laundered, but can increasingly be seen to be a source of profit in itself to powerful political interests.

And while not all vanilla provides financing for political instability in Madagascar, it is almost impossible to tell which vanilla is illegal or stolen, which is used to cover other illegal contraband smuggling, and which is totally clean. The same is true about which vanilla is produced through child labour; there is almost no way to tell. The ‘middlemen’ of the vanilla trade mix together stolen and legitimately purchased vanilla to make product tracing difficult, and regularly sell to each other. Vanilla thus changes hands so often that tracing it to its source is largely impossible. International buyers also are exceptionally lax in trying to trace the vanilla back to its source or demanding sufficient proof from their merchants, despite having policies against child labour and selling fenced products. DanWatch investigated this in its home state of Denmark, and found that several companies that sell vanilla in Danish supermarkets did not “know for sure whether their vanilla [was] produced with child labour” and that “one company that makes vanilla products admits to not knowing whether or not the vanilla it sells in Danish supermarkets is stolen; other companies declined to answer.” DanWatch also talked to a lawyer who said that consumers are at risk of buying fenced goods in supermarkets that are unsure of the origins of their vanilla. It is unlikely that Denmark is the only developed country which has these problems.

To return full circle: what does this mean for ice-cream? If made with Madagascan vanilla, they run the risks of funding child labour, political instability and organized crime as well. And, to quote a BBC headline, ice-cream makers can offer their customers “Theft, piracy or murder flavour?”

If you want to feel a bit better about your favourite comfort foods: remember that a massive amount of vanilla products are still made using synthetic vanilla flavouring. Further, awareness of the problem is growing; for example, industry expert Serge Rajaobelina (mentioned above) runs an NGO called Fanamby which works with thousands of farmers to produce sustainable, traceable vanilla.

In summary: Ice-cream prices are rising because of the soaring price of vanilla. 80% of vanilla comes from Madagascar. It is a particularly difficult plant to cultivate and grow, and is highly vulnerable to environmental factors, such as the cyclone early last year. However, the high price for vanilla does not get transferred to farmers, who struggle with extreme poverty and organized crime and regularly have to resort to child labour. The Madagascan vanilla industry is also caught up in the political turmoil of the country (including events such as a coup d’état and election tampering), both in its own right and as a cover to major smuggling operations around products such as rosewood. And it is almost impossible to tell whether the vanilla bought in stores – or put into ice-cream – can be traced back to any of these ills.

One of the world’s most popular and most ubiquitous flavours is therefore significantly problematic. And vanilla – which has become synonymous with boring, bland and banal – can thus be seen to be anything but.