Jul 26, 2011 • By

Nothing vanilla about this

Sharman O’Neill is passionate about vanilla. Not necessarily the alluring smell of it, or the taste. She’s actually more interested in how and where it’s being grown.

From Mexico to Madagascar, and Hawaii to the French island of La Réunion off the African coast, O’Neill has traveled far and wide to secure the future of something that’s in many of your favorite foods.

O’Neill is a professor of biological sciences at the University of California-Davis. General Mills recently awarded her international research team a $200,000 grant to map the vanilla genome and research natural crop improvements that will lead to a more sustainable supply of cultivated vanilla.

We picked the UC-Davis project as the winning entry in the General Mills Sustainability Challenge, a competition open to U.S. universities that solicits ideas for reducing waste, encouraging sustainable consumption and using resources responsibly.

Vanilla is harvested in a few corners of the world by a small number of farming families. Vanilla beans are a labor intensive crop that must be harvested by hand from a flowering orchid.

We talked with O’Neill about her research. In this audio clip, she told us she’s particularly proud of how her project involves the vanilla farmers.

The vanilla research is designed to lay the foundation for natural improvements – like disease-resistance and enhanced flavor – that will enable farmers to generate more income from a larger, more consistent and higher-quality crop in the face of challenging environmental factors.

O’Neill’s team also includes scientists from the J. Craig Venter Institute (USA), CIRAD (UMR-PMVBT La Réunion), the University of Antananarivo (Madagascar) and INIFAP/SAGARPA (Mexico).

The researchers plan to begin small-scale testing of improved vanilla plant varieties by 2013, with the expectation of making those varieties available to growers by approximately 2015.

Thinking about O’Neill’s work gives the chocolate lover in me a whole new appreciation for vanilla – and inspiration for dessert tonight.