Mexican scientist saves vanilla

Exploitation, genetic erosion, unfair trade, and climate change have endangered vanilla in Mexico

The Mexican scientist fighting to save vanilla
Rebeca Menchaca has spent 30 years trying to save vanilla - Photo: File Photo/EL UNIVERSAL
English 23/05/2019 16:34 Newsroom Mexico City Citlali Aguilera Actualizada 16:49
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The Mexican Vanilla planifolia was venerated by ancient Mexican cultures, holds a designation of origin, and improved the culinary industry but now this extraordinary plant is at risk.

It was a hot day in Papantla, Veracruz when an 11-year-old girl who had just moved into the city, had just finished her day at school. The sun was shining and she needed a refreshing drink, so she bought shaved ice. There was only one flavor: a dark syrup that contained many shiny and long beans, they were brown, almost black. She was surrounded by an aromatic halo and her taste buds were delighted.

In that same region, but several centuries ago, the inhabitants, known as Totonacos, looked for this plant among the thickness of the jungle from Totonacapan to Caxixánat. During pre-colonial times, vanilla was used for edible, medicinal, religious, and commercial purposes but it was also used to pay tribute to the Aztecs, since enjoying a beverage made with vanilla, cacao, and honey was a privilege exclusive to the nobility.

Rebeca Menchaca was that little girl. She is now a researcher at the Veracruz University's Center of Tropical Investigations (CITRO UV), she tells me “that's when I became curious about what I was tasting.” That first encounter with vanilla marked her career as a scientist and her mission as a researcher.



Endangered species

Lynn Margulis, an evolutionary biologist, said that “life is a symbiotic and cooperative union that allows the success of those who associate.” The Vanilla planifolia, known was vanilla, is no exception. The plant is native to southern Mexico and belongs to the orchids family. This species is epiphyte, which means it grows on the surface of trees, therefore, its roots form a symbiotic relationship with the Tulasnella and Ceratobasidium fungus and its green flowers can be pollinated by the male Euglossini bees, who are attracted by aromatic chemical substances present in the orchid.

When fertilized, the flower dries and the fruit grows, it becomes a long capsule that contains hundreds of tiny seeds. Nevertheless, it has been erroneously called bean and that is where its name in Spanish derives from. Nine months later, the fruit is ripe and ready for the harvest, then the producers start a process called “benefit.”

Unfortunately, despite its historical, biological, cultural, and gastronomical value, vanilla is currently endangered and has been placed on the list of the plants with a high genetic erosion level according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

A daring experiment

Before becoming a biologist, Rebeca had already decided she wanted to study orchids. During her school years, she heard that the vanilla seeds are hard to germinate, that is why producers opt for its asexual reproduction. This means producers generate clones and the production of fruits is carried out through self-pollination. Unfortunately, this practice has contributed to genetic erosion, the loss of genetic diversity within a species.

“It's been said that all the (vanilla) crops in Mexico come from six to eight clones, so there's no genetic variability as such, therefore, it is highly susceptible to plagues and diseases, as well as not surviving droughts,” the researcher explained.

It is important to remember that a seed contains the genetic information inherited from generation to generation, on the other hand, a clone is an individual genetically identical created through an asexual reproduction mechanism; this is why the germination of seeds is so important.”

The researcher says that “there was no scientific study about its germination, there were only two reports from the 50s but it was believed that the hundreds of seeds produced were infertile.” So when the time came for her to write her dissertation, she decided her goal would be to germinate the vanilla seed.

In 1989, her dissertation became the first scientific study in regards to the successful germination of vanilla in Mexico. In her thesis, she proposed a germination method using a nutritional gel and discovered that immature seeds were the ones that could germinate. Now, 30 years later, the researcher realized hers was a “quite daring experiment.”

Saving diversity

Mexican botanist Miguel Soto Arenas says that “vanilla is over-exploited because the wild populations have been decimated through the excessive harvest to establish plantations to the point where the species is in serious danger of extinction.

Therefore, in order to increase genetic diversity in the vanilla crops, Rebeca Menchaca began to create hybrids using similar Mexican species: Vanilla planifolia, used in commerce, and Vanilla pompona. The crossbreed was compatible and the scientist was able to produce seeds for its in vitro germination.

During all these years, her scientific endeavors have taken place between the orchidarium at the University; which has equipped laboratories for the in vitro processes, as well as a germplasm bank, and the fieldwork that has taken her to places like Reunion, an island in Madagascar; the Bolivian Amazonia, and other places in Mexico, especially Papantla, the place where vanilla comes from: “we helped (the vanilla producers) so that they could have a legal plant nursery that followed the rules (implemented by) SEMARNAT, as a wildlife conservation unit.”

Designation of origin

The Papanteca orchid has a General Declaration of Protection of the Designation of Origin, which was made official on March 5, 2009. Also, the Mexican government obtained the Protection of the Designation of Origins and its International Registration at the Lisbon Agreement.

Along with saffron, vanilla is one of the most expensive species in the world. According to Reuters, this year, the prize reached USD $600 per kilo.

It is widely known that vanilla from Papantla is of high-quality because of the bioclimatic characteristics of the region, which concentrate the aromatic elements in the fruit, giving it a unique bouquet that hasn't been achieved anywhere else in the world.

Nevertheless, the volume of vanilla production in Mexico is 30 tonnes per year and has no effect on the international market. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Observatory for Economic Complexity reports that the main vanilla exporters are Madagascar, who has taken over 66% of the world market; followed by Indonesia, 9.8%, and Germany, 3.5%.

Rescuing Mexican vanilla

Besides the grim situation in the international market and the genetic erosion threatening vanilla, the vanilla harvesting is facing serious affectations as the result of climate change: “The areas registered for its harvesting range between 9 to 400 meters above sea level but now we can find it at 1,000 meters above sea level,” says Menchaca, who is also carrying out studies about pollination, experimenting with pollen at different temperatures: “we have realized that pollen doesn't germinate at high temperatures, so it doesn't form a fruit, this is directly linked to global warming.”

The Mexican scientist, along with her team and other researchers, is carrying out the first study about the impact climate change has on vanilla. She is also studying the resistance to pathogens, hybridization tests, genetic improvement, the identification of fungus beneficial for the germination, among other processes.

Vanilla needs a lot of collaborators to exist: it needs a fungus to germinate; it needs a tree to grow; it needs an insect to be pollinated; it needs a bird or a bat to disperse; but for its prevalence in the country, this millenary crop needs all of us.”


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