Brazil gets its first vanilla gene bank
Brazil gets its first vanilla gene bank
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Photo: Zenilton Gayoso
Despite its importance, especially for the gastronomic market, vanilla is found in few genetic collections in the world
Embrapa's gene bank, one of the five largest repositories of the kind in the world, has gotten its first collection of one of the species that gastronomy covets the most: vanilla. Over 70 accessions (samples) of orchids from the Vanilla genus compose the first vanilla gene bank of Brazil and the only one in the world to gather a significant volume of species from South America. The collection will allow important benefits like supporting breeding and genetic improvement by supplying genes of agronomic interest; informing the domestication of vanilla in Brazil, whose production is still based on forest gathering and extraction; and by helping to conserve the species.
Despite its importance especially for the gastronomic market, vanilla is found in few germplasm collections in the world. The most prominent ones are in the Center of International Cooperation in Agricultural Research for Development (Cirad), a French institution that keeps 200 accessions of 30 species in Réunion Island, and the collections at the University of California, the Indian Institute of Spices Research (IISR) and of a few botanical gardens.
The most popular flavor of the planet
The aroma extracted from Vanilla spp. is the most popular and most widely used one in the world. Vanilla contains about 300 chemical compounds responsible for an unique aroma and with a large variety of uses. It is used in ice cream, confections, baked goods, drinks and food aromas, as well as in cosmetics. About 97% of vanilla is used for fragrances and aromas.
“Our collection is unknown because Brazil has countless wild species of the Vanilla genus that have never been explored and that have recently started to have value, and thus could be used not only in the segment of gastronomy but also in the cosmetic industry”, states Roberto Vieira (to the left), a researcher at Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology and leader of the research project on vanillas of Brazil.
The relevance of Embrapa's vanilla germplasm collection lies not only in the traits that are interesting for gastronomic use from an olfatory standpoint, but also in the search for materials that are resistant to diseases. “Vanilla suffers from many sanitary problems like viruses and fungi. In the genetic material collected by the project team we also hope to find materials with genes of resistance to such diseases, especially Fusarium, which is a very critical fungus in vanillas”, the researcher underscores, as he reveals that there are many prospective uses of the gene bank, that range from encouraging smallholders to obtain products with higher added value to the establishment of partnerships with companies and industries interested in the commercial use of the species.
Incentive to the production of native species
The vanilla production chain in Brazil has not been structured yet and its exploration depends on forest extraction processes to trade the fruits. A good part of the technical material available targets Vanilla planifolia, a Mexican species that is cultivated in the whole world. According to Vieira, to encourage growers who lack information, the team has held workshops not only to disseminate technical knowledge but also to gather and learn more about the public who works with the species.
The project's researchers have already started to gather data with technical information that will bridge the existing gap with regard to Brazilian species. By the end of 2022, they are going to publish a primer with content that will cover from seedling production to the processing of vanilla fruits. “The expectation is to move away from the forest extraction model into a cultivation one”, the Embrapa researcher observes.
One of the challenges of the Embrapa Units involved in the research is the domestication of the plant with the development of techniques and cultivation protocols to replace the current extraction model that prevails in the country. Hence the scientists intend to help to include native Brazilian vanillas in the market by broadening supply and creating the opportunity to add value to a local product and develop rural communities that produce the raw material. The scientists believe that the local species have interesting and distinct traits in comparison with others in the international market, and that precisely because of that they could meet the requirements of haute cuisine.
Where to find Brazilian vanillas
Despite the Vanilla genus having a broad distribution in the Brazilian territory, with occurrence in all the Brazilian states and Distrito Federal, three species that are considered of current economic value or of potential use: Vanilla bahiana, V. chamissonis and V. pompona.
Vanilla bahiana is widely spread in the Brazilian Southeast and Northeast. V. chamissonis has broad geographic distribution in Brazil, from its eastern extreme to its western extreme, and it is present in all the five regions the country. Meanwhile V. pompona is currently found in the Southeast, Northeast, Midwest and North regions.
Nowadays Madagascar is the world's top producer of vanilla. The types that are most commonly found are: Bourbon vanilla, Mexican vanilla, Tahitian vanilla, and West Indian vanilla. Out of the varieties available in the market, the one from Madagascar is the most used one that takes up 70% of the international market, followed by Tahitian and Mexican vanillas.
The demand for this product is higher than supply, probably because the production of the main suppliers of the raw material, (e.g. Madagascar and Indonesia) has seen reduced productivity in light of diseases and climate adversities.
Considering that the propagation of vanilla is essentially vegetative, through cuttings, the genetic base in producing countries is very small, which exposes it to biological and environmental risks. The price of cured vanilla is defined by international companies, and it is normally similar to the price in Madagascar. In the last three years, these companies charged about 50 dollars per kilo of the product. In some cases, small amounts of premium pods were sold at 80 dollar per kilo.
Brazilian vanillas, from Goiás to the world
Danish chef Simon Lau, who has lived in Brasília, DF since the 1990s, was the one who "rediscovered” Cerrado vanillas and introduced them as an ingredient in the high gastronomy of the region. When a travelling salesman knocked on the door of his country home in the city of Goiás, Lau bought all the pods that the seller carried in a shoebox. Enormous when compared with commercial pods (measuring as much as 25 cm in length), they started to spread in culinary circles and were taken to a festival in Spain by Brazilian Michelin-starred chef Alex Atala. The history has been reported by Cláudia Nasser, gastronomy scholar and researcher of Brazilian vanillas.
“The aromatic and flavor potential of the Brazilian spice has spread out through the world of gastronomy”, she asserts. Renowned chefs like Emiliana Azambuja and Humberto Marra have already incorporated it in their recipes. The ingredient is also being used in chocolates, kombuchas and other products on a small scale.
In the city of Goiás – former colonial capital of then province and now state with the same name –, vanillas are everywhere: in the historical center, the church patio, the suburbs and especially in the rural zone, and even in gardens and backyards of the houses in the urban area. There they have been used by its inhabitants for over 200 years, mainly for medicinal purposes, to treat coughs, sore throats and other respiratory diseases. In her recipe book, famous local writer Cora Coralina recorded the use of vanilla dates from the 18th century.
Most vanilla pods from Goiás are artisanally extracted, and production practices – harvest, cure and use – follow ancestral techniques. In the city Nasser calls the El Dorado of Vanillas, the cure of the pods – process to release the aroma and odor that are typical of the spice – is finished with honey, sugar, grain alcohol or cachaça, since they are generally used as medicine or in desserts.
In order to give the Brazilian ingredient more traction in the market, the cure has to follow processes that allow the sale of fresh beans, so as to meet the requirements of the gastronomic market. However, the appreciation of the ingredient has led to disordered extraction, which can cause imbalances in plant production, as Nasser warns: “We need to understand the establishment of the Brazilian vanilla production chain to have a sustainable and fair process that can contribute to family farmer income. Today, a pod from Goiás is sold at R$ 20.00, and we find it for up to R$ 180.00 online”.
In four days, researchers covered areas in Goiás state where vanilla is known to be found by the local population. In the towns of Nova América, which was once called Baunilha (vanilla in Portuguese), and Itapirapuã, they collected about 30 seedlings of different species - Vanilla pompona, V. bahiana, V. chamissonis and one that is yet to be identified - and incorporated them to the first germplasm bank for the species, at Embrapa's Gene Bank.
“The goal of the collections is to increase the genetic diversity of the accessions in the gene bank and find materials with superior traits of interest for the project”, explains Fernando Rocha, a researcher from Embrapa Cerrados who participated in the activity. The collection had the collaboration of people from the region, who know the places where there are remainders of the species.
In Nova América, the team, which also comprised the researchers Marília Pappas and Wanderlei Lima and the technician Ismael Silva Gomes, had Vera Lúcia Pimenta, a descendant from the city's pioneers, collaborate in the collection of the materials. Other collections will be performed this year in the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso, Bahia, Espírito Santo and Goiás.
The material will not only compose the gene bank, but will also be used in studies on the species. A first batch of seedlings was planted in a native area belonging to Embrapa Cerrados. “The work collection will be formed by the main species with commercial potential", Rocha explains, as he reports that the material will be characterized, multiplied and used in experiments for the development of crop processes.
In Brasília, the farmer Rubens Bartholo de Oliveira (to the left) is curing the pods of his first harvest. With the use of an electric incubator, he has tested the best combination of temperature and humidity so that his vanillas have an excellent quality at the end of the process. In his property, he has two screens, one of which is already in full production with V. pompona and V. bahiana species, from the Cerrados of Goiás state.
A vanilla enthusiast, he was interested in its cultivation when he learned of the repercussion of the delicacy in the culinary world. For that purpose, he studied the plant, researched its cultivation and the cure of the beans, and went to Mexico to take a course at Mexican Vanilla Research Center (Cemivac).
In his second screen, which is lined with a coconut shell-based substratum, Oliveira cultivates different species coming from various places and other Brazilian states - V. planifolia and V. tahitensis, from Pará; V. pompona, from São Paulo, and V. bahiana, from Goiás, in addition to V. palmarum, V. chamissonis, V. cribbiana and V. calyculata. “The fruits have over two hundreds aromatic compounds - vanillin is just one of them. On top of different vanillin content levels, each species has a unique combination of aromas”, Rocha explains.
Oliveira is waiting for his plants to bear fruit so that he can identify the best ones for his business. “I believe that the vanilla chain can do well here in the region,” the grower bets that he will soon start to trade Cerrado vanilla beans.
Deva Heberlê (MTb 5.297/RS)
Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology
Juliana Miura (MTb 8.570/99/DF)
Translation: Mariana Medeiros (13044/DF)
Superintendency of Communications
Further information on the topic
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