“Contributing to the viability of vanilla farming is important for growers, their communities, and the environment,” said Steve Peterson, director of sourcing sustainability at General Mills. “It is also important for vanilla buyers such as General Mills. As a crop, vanilla is often a way of life for vanilla growers. But vanilla is increasingly under threat from plant disease, volatile weather patterns and economic hardship, leading many growers to abandon vanilla farming for crops that may offer more stability and consistency.”
“General Mills’ goal is to maintain a strong, sustainable supply of high-quality vanilla beans,” said Peterson. “That’s what this project is all about.”
General Mills awarded the grant to an international team of researchers led by Dr. Sharman O’Neill, professor of biological sciences at the University of California-Davis. O’Neill and her research team will use natural and traditional plant-breeding methods, combined with cutting-edge genomic mapping techniques, to develop improved and hybrid vanilla varieties that are hardier, more disease resistant and offer enhanced flavor. Scientists from the J. Craig Venter Institute (USA), CIRAD (UMR-PMVBT La Réunion), the University of Antananarivo (Madagascar) and INIFAP/SAGARPA (Mexico) are all involved in the effort.
“The Vanilla Sustainability Project is a great opportunity to do something critically important for farmers who are facing economic hardship due to the low prices for their vanilla beans, a Fusarium disease epidemic, climate stress, and environmental deterioration – all of which impact vanilla production,” said Dr. O’Neill. “The ultimate goal of the project is to improve the genetic foundation of the vanilla crop in support of vanilla farmers worldwide.”
Researchers plan to begin small-scale testing of improved vanilla plant varieties by 2013, with the expectation of making those varieties available to growers by approximately 2015.
The vanilla project was the winning entry in General Mills’ Sustainability Challenge, a call for universities to submit grant proposals containing their best ideas for encouraging sustainable consumption, reducing waste, and using resources responsibly.
“We’re helping provide foundational research on vanilla for scientists around the world,” said Peterson. “It’s an opportunity to steward the environment and social sustainability of a fragile crop, while building stronger communities – and General Mills is proud to be involved.”