Working with plants was nominative determinism – my name is ‘Gardiner’ after all. I grew up in a mixed-race household on a small farm; my dad is from a British farming family and my mum from India.
As a kid, I grew interested in which bugs and birds helped or hindered the growth of fruits and vegetables in our garden, or which crops in the neighbouring fields suffered in the summer and why. I looked at roots and soils, trying to understand how everything fits together, observing and drawing insects in my small notebook. The importance of this micro-universe would come up time and time again in my research in the years ahead.
At university I studied biochemistry and genetics. I specialised in how plants produce chemical signals in response to disease and damage, and developed skills in reading the plant genes responsible. In my master’s degree I worked on the structure of plant proteins.
When it came to my PhD, I wanted to apply my knowledge to problems in the real world. An industrial collaboration between Cranfield University and Unilever was the perfect choice. I explored how environmental and processing factors affect the quality of natural vanilla flavours for ice cream. In so doing, we could make the supply chain more resilient to changing climates and plant disease outbreaks, and most importantly – protect farmers’ livelihoods.
The natural vanilla flavours used in our ice cream products comes from a delicate orchid called Vanilla planifolia. It takes a long time to grow vanilla plants from seed and the plant is most commonly propagated through cutting and replanting sections of vanilla vine.
Each flower will only open for a few hours on one single day, before it withers and falls off the plant entirely. The plant has no natural pollinators in Madagascar, and every flower needs to be pollinated by hand.
While the majority of the world’s vanilla crop is grown in Madagascar, the plant is not native to this area of the world. During the 19th century, a very small number of vanilla plants were taken from Mexico to several locations around the Indian Ocean. Madagascan vanilla plants are therefore understood to be genetically very similar and susceptible to disease. If one plant goes down, it is likely that the problem will spread, wiping out a harvest and a farmer’s livelihood in one fell swoop.