19/07/22 |   Agroindustry  Biodiversity  Research, Development and Innovation  Plant production

Brazil gets its first vanilla gene bank

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Photo: Zenilton Gayoso

Zenilton Gayoso - Despite its importance, especially for the gastronomic market, vanilla is found in few genetic collections in the world

Despite its importance, especially for the gastronomic market, vanilla is found in few genetic collections in the world

  • Collection offers visibility and conservation for Brazilian vanilla species, which are still little known around the world.
  • It is the first and only vanilla gene bank in Brazil. It has a distinct collection as it includes several species from South America.
  • The bank will also help to find genes that are resistant to diseases that attack the species, and inform breeding and genetic improvement.
  • Brazilian vanilla species have unique characteristics that can win over important markets like the haute cuisine one.
  • The world's demand for vanilla has always been higher than supply.
  • Collections add genetic diversity to research.
  • Vanillas from the Brazilian Cerrado biome have started to gain space in world cuisine.

 

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.

 

 

Market

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 –, they 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. Lá, elas são utilizadas há mais de 200 anos por seus habitantes, principalmente com fins medicinais, para tratamento de tosse, inflamação de garganta e outras doenças do trato respiratório. Em seu livro de receita, a escritora Cora Coralina registrou o uso da baunilha desde o século 18.

A maior parte das favas de Goiás vem do extrativismo e as práticas de produção – colheita, cura e uso – seguem as técnicas adquiridas de seus antepassados. Na chamada El Dorado das Baunilhas, por Nasser, a cura da vagem – processo para liberar o aroma e o odor típicos da especiaria – é finalizada em mel, açúcar, álcool de cereais ou cachaça, já que seu uso é geralmente medicinal ou em doces.

Para que o ingrediente brasileiro ganhe espaço no mercado, a cura deve ser feita seguindo processos que permitam a venda da fava in natura, atendendo as exigências do mercado gastronômico. No entanto, a valorização do ingrediente tem levado a um extrativismo desordenado, o que pode causar um desequilíbrio na produção das plantas, adverte a gastróloga: “Precisamos entender a formação da cadeia produtiva das baunilhas brasileiras para termos um processo sustentável e justo, que possa auxiliar na renda dos agricultores familiares. Hoje, uma fava de Goiás é vendida por R$ 20,00 e na Internet, encontramos por até R$ 180,00”.

O trabalho de coleta

Em quatro dias, pesquisadores percorreram áreas do estado de Goiás onde a baunilha é conhecida pela população. No município de Nova América, que já se chamou Baunilha, e em Itapirapuã, cerca de 30 mudas de diferentes espécies – Vanilla pompona, V. bahiana, V. chamissonis e uma ainda a ser identificada – foram coletadas e incorporadas ao primeiro banco de germoplasma da espécie, no Banco Genético da Embrapa.

“O objetivo das coletas é aumentar a diversidade genética dos acessos do banco de germoplasma e buscar materiais com características superiores de interesse para o projeto”, conta Fernando Rocha, pesquisador da Embrapa Cerrados que participou da atividade. A coleta foi realizada com a colaboração de pessoas da região, que conhecem os locais onde estão os remanescentes das espécies.

Em Nova América, a equipe, composta também pelos pesquisadores Marília Pappas e Wanderlei Lima e o técnico Ismael Silva Gomes, contou com a colaboração de Vera Lúcia Pimenta, descendente dos pioneiros da cidade na coleta dos materiais. Outras coletas serão realizadas ainda neste ano, em Mato Grosso, Bahia, Espírito Santo e Goiás.

O material, além de compor o banco genético, será utilizado em estudos sobre as espécies. Uma primeira remessa de mudas foi plantada em uma área nativa da Embrapa Cerrados. “A coleção de trabalho será formada pelas principais espécies com potencial comercial", conta Rocha ao informar que o material será caracterizado, multiplicado e utilizado em experimentos para o desenvolvimento dos processos da cultura.

Em Brasília, o produtor rural Rubens Bartholo de Oliveira (à esquerda) cura as favas de sua primeira safra. Com o uso de uma chocadeira elétrica, ele testa a melhor combinação de temperatura e umidade para que, ao fim do processo, suas baunilhas tenham uma ótima qualidade. Em sua propriedade, ele mantém dois telados, um deles já em plena produção das espécies pompona e bahiana, vindas do Cerrado goiano.

Entusiasta da cultura, interessou-se por seu cultivo quando ficou sabendo da repercussão da iguaria no mercado gastronômico. Para isso, estudou a planta, pesquisou sobre seu cultivo e a cura das favas e foi ao México fazer um curso no Centro Mexicano de Investigación em Vainilla (Cemivac).

No segundo telado, com paredes de substrato à base de casca de coco, Oliveira cultiva diferentes espécies vindas dos mais variados locais – planifolia e tahitensis, do Pará; pompona, de São Paulo, e bahiana, de Goiás, além de palmarum, chamissonis, cribbiana e calyculata. “Os frutos têm mais de duas centenas de compostos aromáticos – a vanilina é só um deles. Além de teores diferentes de vanilina, cada espécie tem uma combinação única de aromas”, explica Rocha.

Oliveira espera que suas plantas comecem a dar frutos para que possa identificar quais são as melhores para seu negócio. “Eu acredito que a cadeia de baunilha pode dar certo aqui na região,” aposta o produtor que em breve começará a comercializar favas de baunilha do Cerrado.

Deva Heberlê (MTb 5.297/RS)
Embrapa Genetic Resources and Biotechnology

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Juliana Miura (MTb 8.570/99/DF)
Embrapa Cerrados

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Translation: Mariana Medeiros (13044/DF)
Superintendency of Communications

Further information on the topic
Citizen Attention Service (SAC)
www.embrapa.br/contact-us/sac/

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