The Vanilla Industry’s Dark Side


Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and that means sustainable foodies are talking a lot about the link between chocolate and child slavery.ย  The chocolate-slavery connection is an important one, and one we’ve talked quite a bit a out before, too.

What I haven’t seen folks making much noise about are the labor practices surrounding vanilla production. This is something that’s been on my mind since the holidays. I ordered a big bag of vanilla beans from Madagascar online to make my own bitters as holiday gifts. When I mentioned hunting for vanilla beans in bulk, a friend mentioned that she suspected that vanilla had some of the same issues as chocolate. Of course, I was in denial about it and didn’t get to researching until the holidays were well over. What I found was depressing at best.

Vanilla and Child Labor

While I didn’t find anything about a link between slavery and the vanilla industry, I found an eye-opening piece on about what goes on in the vanilla industry. The quote from the article that really drove things home for me was this one, from an eight-year-old worker named Noary:

We work for six to seven hours a day from dawn.ย  Many of my friends work in the fields around here. We don’t go to school. I work with my family. Close to the harvest time we all have to sleep alongside the plants to protect them. Ants cover our bodies.

Madagascar vanilla has its problems, and Uganda’s vanilla is on the U.S. Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor (pdf alert).

What You Can Do

Luckily, not all vanilla is produced at the expense of young children. Sticking to fair trade vanilla is your best bet to make sure farmers are making a fair wage for their work and that child labor is out of the equation. You can find products made with fair trade vanilla, and there are even companies that make fair trade vanilla extract. I had a tough time finding fair trade vanilla beans Reader Adrienne hipped me to a source for fair trade vanilla beans! She gets hers from Frontier Natural Products Co-op, or you can try fair trade vanilla bean powder to use in their place.

Ethically-minded companies are starting to take notice of this issue, too. Ben & Jerry’s is planning to use fair trade vanilla (and other fair trade ingredients) in its products by the end of next year.

Have you guys seen other fair trade vanilla out there? This is an issue where your wallet casts a powerful vote.

Image Credit: Vanilla photo via Shutterstock

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