University of Florida: USDA Grant To Enhance UF/IFAS Vanilla Research, Promote Domestic Industry

A tropical fruit breeder with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is a step closer to establishing a domestic vanilla industry for growers in Florida, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

Alan Chambers, an assistant professor and plant geneticist at UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center (TREC) has been awarded a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to foster a domestic vanilla production industry.

Alan Chambers in the shade house at UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center by one of the hundreds of vanilla varieties growing.
“A major component of this grant is to advance our work with growers, scientists and residents,” said Chambers. “Vanilla has the potential to be among the highest grossing agricultural commodities and could revitalize some of our distressed agricultural industry.”

Chambers and his team at UF/IFAS TREC also hope to help solve problems that prevent domestic vanilla cultivation.

“This grant helps us communicate cutting-edge information to growers and helps the information be made widely available,” said Chambers. “We will also be able to expand the impact of our previous vanilla breeding and genomics research at UF/IFAS.”

Madagascar leads the world in vanilla production, supplying more than 80% of the world’s vanilla, with Indonesia, Uganda, India, Comoros, Mexico, and other countries significantly contributing to global production. The United States is the biggest importer of vanilla beans from Madagascar and, once in America, those beans are further processed into vanilla extract. As a spice, it is the second most expensive and is the world’s most popular flavor.

“Domestic growers can certainly profit from such a high-value crop like vanilla,” said Chambers. “We hope that this grant will also help us connect with vanilla researchers in North, Central and South America so we can leverage biological diversity to improve this species.”

image – vanilla beans -Over the last five years, Chambers has generated various vanilla genomics and diversity studies looking at hundreds of vanilla types. He has a collection of more than 300 vanilla types from around the world. He has worked with local and global growers, other scientists and partners in his efforts to identify the best types, traits, variations and yield potentials for Florida.

“With this grant, we will continue to evaluate dozens of types of vanilla to find the best types for cultivation in southern Florida. We will also advance our vanilla breeding work to create new cultivars with improved traits like yield and flavor,” he said.

Vanilla bean pods growing at UF/IFAS TREC.
Vanilla seed capsules are commonly referred to as beans. The major commercial species is V. planifolia, with V. × tahitensis cultivated to a lesser extent. These are cultivated at a hefty price from Madagascar.

UF/IFAS TREC has one of the largest recorded collections of vanilla in the world. Chambers and his research team can select from that plethora of varieties to increase production locally. Each species has been studied for its individual genetic composition, said Chambers.

“Crop domestication is the process of improving the genetics of favored foods, so they are safe, delicious, and abundant,” said Chambers.

Vanilla is somewhat unique in that it has not been globally domesticated through plant improvement, and the industry relies on cultivated, wild clones. In this scenario, vanilla has not generally benefited from plant breeding. This means the plants growing in the forests of Central America are genetically identical to those in commercial production.

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