Delicious: what difference does knowledge make?

Compound image: the domes of the Eden Project (left), flowering vanilla plant (centre) and tropical plants inside the Eden Project dome (right) © Vanilla image by Alex Popovkin

A sensory exhibit at the Eden Project will highlight the complex social issues around vanilla and cocoa production and explore if knowing how things are produced changes consumer behaviour.

Vanilla is one of the most precious and precarious plants on the planet, says Dr Ben Neimark, from the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University. Ben has spent the past three years studying the violence and volatility surrounding vanilla production in Madagascar, which grows 90% of the world’s supply of this increasingly popular natural flavouring.

“Vanilla has to be pollinated by hand and the plants only flower for one day, so it is difficult to grow. It also has very volatile prices: it cost $80 US dollars a kilo a few years ago and then went up to $600 a kilo. This has created complex social issues, with violence and thefts of vanilla occurring when prices rise, and farmers taking justice into their own hands through lynching and killing.”

Ben has teamed up with the Eden Project in Cornwall to turn their collection of vanilla vines into a mini vanilla plantation and exhibition, to offer people a deeper understanding of the uncertainty and civil strife surrounding its production.

“We are creating a vanilla pergola for people to walk through giving them, for a moment, a sensory experience of what it is like to be on a vanilla plantation. There will be the smell of vanilla plants and a soundscape of a plantation, including the calls of lemur monkeys which are common there.”

The exhibition, which will be in the Tropical Rainforest Biome, will include visual images of production and visitors will hear smallholders speaking, learning about the uncertainty and civil strife involved.

The Pergola, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council – Impact Acceleration Account, is due to open in the autumn, if the Covid 19 restrictions allow. Ben will be using the exhibition to further his research into the theory of ‘moral hyper proximity’ – whether our increasing knowledge of how products are produced actually changes what we buy.

“There is much more information available for consumers today on how the products we buy are produced – so we can now google our way through the supermarket. I am interested in whether learning negative things about how something is produced changes consumers behaviour. If, when people stand in front of a wall of ice cream, the first thing that pops into their mind is the idea of ‘blood vanilla’, do they put the ice cream back on the shelf? While there is no clear evidence that this is happening, the market thinks it might and I’m wondering if it does.”

Ben is also working closely with visiting researcher, David Amuzu, who is investigating social justice issues around the production of cocoa in Ghana. David, of Lausanne University Institute of Geography and Sustainability, is on a Swiss National Science Foundation Fellowship (SNSF). They will be conducting focus groups and offering follow up demonstrations at the Learning Lab in Eden, centring on justice issues surrounding vanilla and cacao production.

Ben is collaborating with Serena Pollastri ofLancaster Institute of Creative Arts (LICA), and Carlos Lopez-Galviz at the Institute for Social Futures (ISF), to create the exhibit. They will be conducting research with visitors at the Vanilla Pergola, to gain a deeper insight into whether they intend to change their purchasing habits because of what they have learnt.

Ben hopes that the Eden installation will spawn a travelling exhibition that can eventually be shown around the UK and in Ghana and Madagascar. Watch Ben talking about the volatility and violence surrounding vanilla production in this video - Why is Vanilla so Expensive – by The Economist Magazine.

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