The world's largest producer of vanilla as of 2023 was Madagascar. More than 3 million tons of vanilla came from this country, which more than doubles the production of the second-place country, Indonesia. The other top five vanilla producers after Madagascar and Indonesia are Mexico, Papua New Guinea, and China.
Vanilla production started in Mexico in the Precolombian era. The vanilla vine grew wild in the warm climate of Mexico and Central America. Totonac farmers from the area near today's Veracruz, Mexico, likely originated the production of vanilla. However, verifiable reports indicate the Maya used the flavoring in a cacao-flavored drink.
When the Aztecs overtook the Totonac people, they adopted the growing and use of vanilla. After the Spanish conquered the Aztecs, they took vanilla among other plants back to Europe.
Despite attempts to grow vanilla to produce seeds for 300 years in French and English greenhouses, growers continued to fail. A bee native to the areas of the vanilla plant's growth contributed to its ability to reproduce. However, those bees did not live in Europe.
In 1841, a boy in Reunion used a stick to hand-pollinate a vanilla plant, which successfully produced beans surrounded by a pod. The process spread to other vanilla-growing areas in the nearby islands, first to Madagascar and then across the Pacific Ocean. Later, the method arrived in Mexico to supplement bee pollination.
The hand-pollination method allowed for producers to grow more vanilla, as long as they invested the extra labor for pollination.
Despite the high production numbers from countries such as Madagascar and Indonesia, vanilla is a difficult crop to grow. However, it also has a high demand as a flavoring ingredient, which leads to high prices for products that use natural vanilla.
To produce vanilla, the flowers require specific growing conditions and laborious production. Most of the countries that produce vanilla have warm climates. Additionally, vanilla grown today requires hand pollination to ensure production. This labor-intensive task adds to the cost and effort of growing vanilla. Today, the vanilla flavor from natural vanilla beans only accounts for 1% of global use. Additionally, 80% of all vanilla grown comes from small farms in Madagascar. Even after pollinating, the vanilla beans require curing to produce usable pods. Following curing, pods only have 2% useable flavoring, requiring high production levels to meet the demand for vanilla flavoring. The high demand for vanilla flavoring coupled with the intensive growing requirements of the plant drives the prices of vanilla up to $300 per pound.