Vanilla: Domestic Production, Global Innovation
Dr. Alan H. Chambers
University of Florida
Homestead, FL, USA
Vanilla orchids produce the second most valuable spice globally, but innovative improvements are hindered by a general lack of genetic improvement. Premium, natural vanilla is extracted from Vanilla orchid seed capsules and comprises 1% of the global vanillin market. The global appetite for vanilla has been described as insatiable, and demand is rising due to increasing consumption of vanilla-enhanced products and large food companies pledging to remove artificial ingredients from their products. The challenges from increasing demand are intensified by supply restrictions. Vanilla cultivation mostly relies on genetically identical, clonally-propagated plants that are at high risk of disease epidemics. The few Vanilla-producing countries are also threatened by abiotic stresses like drought and tropical storms that can greatly impact global vanillin supply and prices. Finally, the destruction of natural areas to increase Vanilla acreage and total yield thwarts corporation sustainability pledges, and is not environmentally responsible. These and other factors necessitate innovative solutions along the entire production chain especially at the plant improvement level.
Traditional plant improvement holds the promise of enhanced cultivars with desirable traits like disease resistance, increased yield and novel quality. Our collaborative research program for Vanilla includes two major objectives. Objective 1) Establish and optimize domestic, commercial Vanilla production that creates synergy with tropical fruit production especially in southern Florida. Objective 2) Develop an innovative Vanilla breeding program to deliver cultivars with improved disease resistance, agronomic performance and quality. These efforts will leverage the natural diversity of Vanilla including native Florida species. The long-term benefits of this research include higher performing plants with unique qualities that will support growers, delight consumers and provide novel solutions for the various challenges facing the Vanilla industry.
Dr. Alan H Chambers is a tropical fruits geneticist and breeder creating novel cultivars through deep genomic/genetic insights and advanced molecular methods. The primary objective of his program is to increase value to growers and enhance the consumer experience. He is passionately interested in superior agronomic performance, enhanced sensory and nutritional quality, optimized sustainable production through genetic solutions and gaining science-based insights enabling future genetic gains. Current focus species include mango, avocado, papaya, banana, alpine strawberries, Vanilla, passionfruit and others. Dr. Chambers has degrees from Brigham Young University (Genetics and Biotechnology, BS), Cornell University (Plant Pathology, MS), and the University of Florida (Horticultural Sciences, PhD). His PhD work focused on candidate gene discovery for superior strawberry flavor. He was recruited by PepsiCo Agro Discovery after the completion of his PhD in February 2014, and joined the faculty at the University of Florida in August 2016.