High prices may take a bite out of the vanilla industry

Vanilla prices are rising, thanks to a shortage.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Two little girls eat their ice cream cones outside a home. Squatters have built homes on one of the many rocky hillsides in Kabul, Afghanistan, on April 6, 2012.

When it gets hot this summer, your favorite frozen treats might come with a price.

There's a vanilla shortage that's leading to sky-high prices. And that may be a challenge that proves hard to swallow for the ice cream industry.

Vanilla extract has risen from about 39 dollars a liter in February to 85 dollars a liter now, Charlie Thuillier, the founder and managing director of the ice-cream brand Oppo, told The Guardian. 

Most of the world's vanilla is produced in Madagascar. But the island has had a poor harvest.

A good year sees a crop of about 2,200 tons of vanilla beans from Madagascar. But in 2015, between 1,400 and 1,550 were produced. 

Last year Madagascan vanilla prices rose by almost 150 percent as a result of the poor harvest.

"There are reports that vanilla farmers in Madagascar harvested their 2015 crop prematurely, in fear of losing their production to thieves," Jara Zicha, an analyst for the data company Mintec, told The Guardian. "This, coupled with inadequate drying in order to increase profits from their crop has led to lower quality vanilla." And this isn't a new problem, "vanilla prices started rising in 2012-13 due to quality concerns and have continued to rise."

Now, Mintec reports that Madagascan vanilla bean prices reached 205 dollars a kilogram in January, up from 84 dollars at the beginning of 2015.  

Vanilla is pricy to start with and ranks as the second most expensive spice globally. That's thanks to the challenge of growing and preparing the beans.

Vanilla comes from orchids, but not just any orchid. The spice is produced from orchids of the genus Vanilla. The plant itself is a long vine that grows its way up trees but it's the pod the plants produce that yield the famed flavor. Inside these pods there are thousands of itty-bitty black seeds. 

For the plant to produce the valuable pods, the orchid flower must be pollinated. But that flower only opens for part of one day. When farmers pick the pods, they're not done yet. The curing process can take three to six months.

Furthermore, vanilla orchids only grow in tropical climates within 20 degrees of the equator. After Madagascar, Mexico and Tahiti produce the most vanilla.

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