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Protecting the world’s favourite ice cream flavour


Authored by Dr Siobhan Gardiner

Chances are the vanilla that flavours your ice cream comes from a plant that travelled from Mexico to Madagascar more than 100 years ago. Dr Siobhan Gardiner has explored ways to ensure we enjoy that flavour for years to come.

Dr Siobhan Gardiner working with vanilla farmers in Madagascar.

About the author

Dr Siobhan Gardiner

Dr Siobhan Gardiner

Sustainable Technology Senior Manager, Unilever

I work on delivering sustainable solutions across Unilever, from smart
agriculture to partnering brands in empowering people to become changemakers in
their own communities. Beyond this role, I also work with young adults, policy
think-tanks, schools and NGOs to advocate for diversity in STEM.

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.

Dr Siobhan Gardiner

My childhood taught me that smallholder farmers speak a common language with three principles common to all: land, family and income. If one suffers, the rest follow suit. So if we protect the land and the crop together, we protect livelihoods and families too.

Dr Siobhan Gardiner

During my PhD I got to spend time with smallholder vanilla farmers in Northern Madagascar. While I don’t speak Malagasy, my childhood taught me that smallholder farmers speak a common language with three principles common to all: land, family and income. If one suffers, the rest follow suit. So if we protect the land and the crop together, we protect livelihoods and families too.

My work sought to understand the process of flavour production in vanilla pods. I learnt how to hand pollinate the flowers and gathered data on the conditions required to grow the best-quality crop and flavour. This involved taking small samples of the pods and seeing what genes are activated at different stages of development.

It’s a bit like using a mail-order DNA kit to read your own genome. I did this myself last year and found out that I have genes that indicate slow caffeine metabolism... which means I should probably cut down on the coffee! Knowing this kind of data could help us make better choices on how to look after the crops that we need to protect.

Finding the answers and creating solutions doesn’t happen in isolation. It means partnering with farmers, suppliers and universities to allow the end-to-end investigation of how to protect vanilla.

Sharing best practice in farming communities is crucial. Unilever’s global partner for vanilla, Symrise, works with over 8,000 vanilla farmers to move to sustainable farming practices, as well as supporting families with healthcare and access to education. Symrise has also helped farmers to diversify their income by growing other crops, such as cloves and ginger, alongside vanilla.

The challenges experienced in growing vanilla are the same as those experienced in growing other food and refreshment crops such as tea and cocoa. If we understand the genetic diversity of a species, we can take steps to preserve that important gene pool so that farmers can continue to grow these amazing crops for generations to come.

Many factors will contribute to future progress. Advances in technology allow us to combine our knowledge of genetics with environmental data, such as soil moisture and sunlight, by using smart sensors in the field. For example, connecting these technologies together via the Internet of Things will allow us to predict crop yields, quality and the best time to harvest.

The use of technology in farming – agritech – is an exciting area of science. It’s also about futureproofing crops so that we can continue to enjoy the taste of natural vanilla (or tea or cocoa for that matter) – taking action now before we lose these crops forever.

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