What Can We Learn From a Vanilla Bean?

When we first read and discussed Ronald Sandler’s Food Ethics, I began to seriously consider the merits of a global food system against its faults for the first time. I struggled to find a solution to the issue of exploitation of producers who provide simple food commodities commonly used in a greater production. However, I was able to experience such a solution through an extensive understanding of the method of production and the source of ingredients, in this case vanilla beans, when we visited De’Coltelli’s gelato shop in Pisa.

The exploitation of small producers of goods like coffee beans, cacao, and even vanilla occurs partly as a result of the fact that they provide little of the final value of what their products will eventually become. A quart of Ben and Jerry’s vanilla ice cream costs a lot more that it cost them to buy the vanilla beans they used, if they even used real beans. These producers face a significant challenge if they wish to bring the unprocessed goods to the market themselves, and intuitively would rather take the quick cash up front instead of trying to process them. Due to this, the producers often get by with very little profit while those who purchase their goods make a fortune. With these challenges in mind, it becomes difficult the knowingly consume food like gelato without an understanding of where the ingredients originated.

This is precisely the reason that made visiting De’Coltelli’s shop so special. We heard very precise descriptions of not only where the ingredients of each flavor came from, but also how they manipulated different factors of production to create such interesting combinations. The owner spoke to us at length about the origin of his vanilla beans as well as how to judge when one truly is of quality. With the complete knowledge of the vanilla’s source (Alain Abel’s Tahiti Vanille Project) in addition to the full technicality involved in its production, the gelato tasted much better, if not more honest. The flavor was simple and expressive of its quality.

Even with this knowledge, some problems still remain. We do not have all the information or history about Alain Abel’s project. We do not know if he exploits his employees or the environment in the process of production. Moreover, Abel is a foreigner who uses another country to produce a good that he then exports, something increasingly popular in the Chianti region with Chianti Classico. This can be seen as detracting from the local heritage of an area as more and more foreigners take over. However, his website does insist on the passion, love, and pride that he has when cultivating and preparing the vanilla.

To steal a line from the Montserrat cluster I was in, how then shall we live? We can all improve our lives and the lives of others by increasing our knowledge of the ingredients in our food. Not only will it taste better, as I learned in Pisa, but we may also be contributing to a more just food system across the globe. We might not always be able to reconcile every aspect of production, but we certainly can take a step in the right direction as more informed consumers.
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