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Vanilla cultivation can be beneficial for people and nature

Madagascar is the most important country for vanilla production, with a vast vanilla orchid cultivated on the tropical northeastern region of the island. A research team led by the University of Göttingen, Germany and the University of Antananarivo, Madagascar has spent the last five years studying vanilla cultivation and its impact on people and the environment. They found that vanilla cultivation on fallow land in agroforestry systems has significant benefits for both humans and nature, compared to other forms of land use. 

Vanilla agroforestry systems are often established directly in the forest, with farmers removing shrubs and individual trees in order to plant vanilla orchids in the shade of the remaining trees. Alternatively, these systems can also be established on fallow land that was burned to accommodate rice fields. In such cases, the land used for vanilla farming is more open, allowing for trees to regrow.

By analyzing a rich array of data on biodiversity, ecosystem services such as carbon storage, and harvest and profitability, while taking into account how land was used in the past, the scientists found that vanilla agroforestry which is established on open fallow land has clear advantages for both people and nature. 

By contrast, the conversion of forests into vanilla agroforestry systems causes disadvantages for animals and plants, because important functions of forests are lost during such processes. Thus, converting more forests to vanilla agroforests can only be justified as an alternative to burning the land, in which biodiversity and ecosystem services are even more negatively impacted.

The methods used in this study can be applied to investigate a wide range of farming practices all over the world and identify the most profitable and sustainable options. “Prior land use is crucial in assessing land-use change in other regions of the world as well. This means that our model is universally applicable, highlighting the relevance of our results for farming and ecology around the world,” concluded study coordinator Holger Kreft, a professor of Biodiversity, Macroecology, and Biogeography at the University of Göttingen. 

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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