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Sustainable Vanilla Provision Using Wild Vanilla Species

Current Vanilla Crisis

If you think about vanilla, you immediately start to imagine delicious ice creams, cakes and other yummy sweets. But where does this vanilla come from? It is extracted from the fruits, better known as beans or pods, of orchid vines, producing an intense aroma resulting from a complex of molecules. These orchids belong to the genus Vanilla (family Orchidaceae), a diverse group of climbing hemi-epiphytes growing around trees with their aerial roots. The genus contains over 100 species and is pantropic, meaning that they are present all around the tropics. However, the aromatic vanilla species, the ones that produce the lovely smelling pods, are native to the neotropics. Nevertheless, when you buy vanilla and take a further look at the country of origin, it will probably say Madagascar. Madagascar however does not lay within the native growing zones of vanilla, so they can only cultivate the introduced species Vanilla planifolia, that was brought over from Mexico by the Spanish during the colonial times. They first tried to cultivate it in Europe, but the climate didn’t permit this species to grow, so the French took it to their colony, Madagascar. Since natural pollinators are absent in Madagascar, they discovered a way of pollinating the flowers by hand. This is when the vanilla production started and became more intense over the years. Nowadays there are a lot of problems within the current production systems and the market chain involves intermediaries that keep prices artificially high by holding back large quantities of the product, explaining the currently high market prices (Figure 1).


Figure 1. Evolution of world market prices of green vanilla beans (€/kg) (adapted from Nelsen-Massey, 2017).

From the above, we concluded that there is a strong need to bring some innovation within this field. As mentioned before, there are several wild vanilla species, also known as crop wild relatives, growing in the lowland tropical rainforests of the Neotropics, with presence of pods (that smell very nice!), indicating natural pollination. There is however very little known about the distribution, biology and ecology of both the orchids and their pollinators, neither about their potential to be cultivated and hereby create an alternative income generation for local communities. The PhD project will try to reveal these secrets step by step, focusing on the species growing within our study region in Costa Rica, and apply the results to provide alternative livelihoods within our study area. This can then be used as a model to be implemented in other areas of interest.


Figure 1. Evolution of world market prices of green vanilla beans (€/kg) (adapted from Nelsen-Massey, 2017).

Goal of the project

We want to see the possibilities of contributing to a more sustainable vanilla provision through a so-called joint land sparing and land sharing approach, ensuring the conservation of wild vanilla populations while cultivating the economically interesting ones within sustainable agroforestry systems, i.e. systems where crops are cultivated within a forest ecosystem, and this within their native growing zones. Land sparing refers to an approach whereby a some land is set aside for conservation and some for intense crop production, whereby land sharing focuses on the production of crops within a forest system, i.e. agroforestry system. If we join these two together we get an approach whereby some land is conserved and some used for agroforestry, stimulating the exchange of natural interactions taking place in the forest towards the close by sustainable production areas. We will study how this new production system of joint land sharing land sharing can contribute to satisfy the high vanilla demand on the global market while protecting its natural growing habitats. More particularly, we will study how native vanilla species can be used as a cash crop within agroforestry systems, making use of natural pollination and developing an alternative income generation for local communities. We will focus on the ones currently owning unproductive and biodiversity-poor lands, to produce high-quality, certified products that can be traded through direct market chains with the industry.

The specific objectives are:

  1. To develop distribution models predicting the suitable areas for conservation and cultivation of wild vanilla species, belonging to the aromatic clade, including information on quality of the pods of these crop wild relatives.

  2. To study the presence and effectiveness of natural pollination of wild vanilla species, and the potential to use this natural pollination within vanilla agroforestry systems, by determining species diversity of the pollinator communities and their pollination success.

  3. To define production success of wild vanilla species within two agroforestry systems (reforestation and cacao), by measuring variables of growth, yield and quality.

  4. To gauge the interest in the idea of implementing an agroforestry system with wild vanilla species as a cash crop, to farmers and private land owners as an alternative and profitable way of land use while benefiting biodiversity and supporting the high vanilla demand on the global market; and identifying the possibilities for creating direct market chains of certified products between farmer and consumer.

During four different phases, also called work packages (WP) we will try to accomplish the above described specific objectives (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Description of the four different phases or work packages (WP) of the project, whereby each phase will try to reveal one of the above mentioned objectives (e.g. objective 1 will be studied during WP1).

Study area & Study species

The project is carried out in the Área de Conservación Osa (ACOSA), one of the eleven conservation areas in Costa Rica. ACOSA is situated in the South Pacific of Costa Rica, and comprises the Osa Peninsula that is known to harbour 2,5% of the World’s biodiversity in only 0,03% of the World’s landmass. So far, it is known that Costa Rica contains thirteen Vanilla species, and seven of them are occurring within our study area: Vanilla dressleri, Vanilla hartii, Vanilla Karen-christianae, Vanilla odorata, Vanilla planifolia, Vanilla pompona and Vanilla trigonocarpa. All of the latter species belong to the aromatic clade, and could be of potential interest for cultivation within our above described approach. Our study area within ACOSA is demonstrated in Figure 3.

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Figure 3. Map showing the Área de Conservación Osa (ACOSA), with the grid representing our study area within ACOSA.

Short description of the different phases during the project

The first phase of my PhD project is focusing on the distribution of the different wild vanilla species in Costa Rica. We are making distribution maps with the help of species distribution modelling (SDM) to highlight the areas where the different species are growing at the moment, and were they could potentially occur or be planted now and in the future. These distribution maps are very interesting if we want to conserve areas with wild vanilla populations, especially taking into account climate change, as well as cultivate them within suitable production areas. We are currently analysing the data of this phase and results will be made public soon, i.e. species distribution maps for both Costa Rica in general as well as focusing on our study area in ACOSA, that show suitable areas for conservation and cultivation of the different wild vanilla species of Costa Rica.


The second phase focuses on the natural pollination of wild vanilla species. There is very little known about the natural pollination process and, as mentioned above, they currently use manual pollination techniques, with high risks of over pollination, leading to stressed plants that are more susceptible for diseases, resulting in lower production, yield and quality. We will, in collaboration with entomology specialists, study the natural pollination of the different wild vanilla species occurring in our study area ACOSA using cameras and butterfly nets, in order to identify the pollinator species as well as their pollination success. The expected result is information on pollinator diversity and pollination success of the different wild vanilla species, that can be applied within vanilla production systems.


The third phase embraces the cultivation potential of the wild vanilla species naturally growing within our study area. We will plant the different species in experimental plots within two land use types, reforestation areas and organic cacao plantations. The experimental plots will be spread over our study area, with different distances towards the natural vanilla populations, this to see the effect of distance from the forests, with the natural vanilla populations, to the plantations on the exchange of natural interactions, and in this way also growth, yield and quality of the vanilla plants. We will be measuring different parameters of growth, yield and quality to gain information on the cultivation potential of wild vanilla species within this approach of joint land sparing / land sharing, that can then be implemented on larger scales.


The final phases is about the interest of the local communities within our study area as well as the market towards this innovative approach of vanilla farming. We will be holding interviews with several communities living within our study area to gain more insight in the current practices and their interest towards alternative livelihoods. Furthermore, we will be holding interviews with the different actors of the market chain between farmer and consumer, to check the interest of the industry for the products coming from the proposed joint land sharing land sparing approach of vanilla farming.

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