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General Mills grant will help vanilla farmers and tropical forests

June 22, 2011

A UC Davis scientist will receive $200,000 from General Mills, a global food company, in support of genomic research for crop improvement of vanilla and its sustainable cultivation in Madagascar.

Sharman O’Neill, a professor in the College of Biological Sciences, is the national winner of the General Mills Sustainability Challenge, a call for universities’ best ideas for reducing waste, encouraging sustainable consumption and using resources responsibly.

O’Neill directs the Vanilla Sustainability Project. Her goal, she said, is to improve the genetic basis of the vanilla-bean crop to help farmers in Madagascar, Mexico and other tropical regions who are struggling to keep growing vanilla beans despite low prices, a fungal-disease epidemic, climate stress and environmental deterioration.

If these farmers abandon vanilla and change to other crops, the tropical forests where the vanilla vines grow in compatible agroforestry systems are likely to be cut down. That would destabilize the critical habitat of innumerable endemic plants and animals, including precious species of lemurs in northeastern Madagascar, the major vanilla-producing country.

"General Mills' goal is to maintain a strong, sustainable supply of high-quality vanilla beans," said Steve Peterson, director of sourcing sustainability at General Mills. "That's what this project is all about."

O’Neill’s vanilla research team involves an international group of scientists from the J. Craig Venter Institute in the United States; the French research center CIRAD on Réunion Island; the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar; the Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Forestales, Agricolas y Pecuarias /SAGARPA in Mexico; and other international collaborators.

As part of the project being funded by General Mills, the scientists plan to use cutting-edge genomic sequencing and mapping technologies, in combination with traditional plant-breeding methods, to develop improved and new vanilla varieties that are hardier, more disease-resistant and offer enhanced flavor. A separate element of the project will also advance efforts to promote a more equitable model for sustainable vanilla cultivation with General Mills’ business partners.

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