When it comes to sustainable spices, ‘single-origin’ isn’t everything

by Hannah Walhout

Published: 9/08/23, Last updated: 9/08/23

When the veteran Indian food critic Marryam H. Reshii decided to write a book about spices, she hoped to encourage people to think a little more deeply about the contents of their spice rack or masala dabba. “Considering how all-important they are,” Reshii says, she found that most people didn’t know a lot about spices — “where they grow, how widespread their use is, what makes the spice in a particular region better (or not) than its counterparts.”

But in researching 2017’s “The Flavour of Spice,” Reshii encountered some details even she wasn’t expecting. Though the country is often cited as the largest spice producer in the world, “India was rather late to the party,” Reshii says. “Black pepper, turmeric and green cardamom are almost definitely native to India,” she explains — but go back far enough and many of the other household spices, which India both consumes and exports in huge volumes, are not.

Not only is the spice trade a global industry, it was also one of the first. That’s how so many of the spices that are foundational to Indian cooking actually made their way there from somewhere else, Reshii explains — sometimes surprisingly recently, as with chiles, brought from Brazil by Portuguese colonizers just five centuries ago. The movement of these flavors has shaped cuisines the world over for thousands of years, and today, some analyses value the global spice market at more than $37 billion. In the U.S., per capita spice consumption has tripled since the 1960s, and demand continues to grow in the wake of a pandemic-era spice boom.

Still, with an entrenched (and often exploitative) global supply chain, direct, transparent, sustainable sourcing has only recently started to make headway. 

A tangled supply chain

The millennia-old spice trade was always extremely lucrative for those who controlled it, but it was the development of colonialism and capitalism that shaped spice supply chains as we know them today. A desire to get around the competition and find a shorter way to the sources of spice was what sent Columbus across the Atlantic, and soon after, drove the Portuguese to sail around the southern tip of Africa and build trading posts from Cape Verde to Mozambique to Goa to Malacca. The Dutch followed, and then the English, both with their own East India Companies (considered some of the world’s earliest corporations). Soon, the goal became to control the lands where the spices were grown and the people who lived there.

In 2008’s “The Taste of Conquest,” culinary historian Michael Krondl writes that a visit to the Rotterdam-based conglomerate Nedspice was a reminder of “how little the spice business has changed.” He saw that the supply chain looked in many ways like it did centuries ago: Spices were predominantly grown by smallholder farmers, who sold to any number of middlemen, who sent the spices along to brokers or auction houses in larger towns and cities. From there, the products were sold — no longer to local merchants or colonial enterprises — but, instead, to international corporations, which imported and then distributed them to their own clients around the world. “Perhaps the biggest change,” Krondl writes, “is that the transportation has been cut from the six or seven months it used to take in the seventeenth century to some two weeks today.”

With commodity spices — the ones that are sold to companies interchangeably, rather than coming from a specific source — it remains a challenge to trace every person or company a product passes through, leaving room for things like poor labor practices to go unpenalized and making quality control difficult. (“Sitting around in warehouses with fluctuating ambient temperatures and humidity levels does not do spices any favors,” Reshii notes.) The convoluted supply chain also means farmers are typically underpaid and sometimes caught in a cycle of debt. Because spices are grown in many regions and represent a broad category — encompassing flavorful seeds, bark, roots, flowers and dried fruits — specific products can have their own unique issues. For example, in light of the ongoing demand for turmeric in the U.S., fueled in part by the wellness industry and no small amount of appropriation, Undark recently reported on the prevalence of an additive called peuri (lead chromate) used by some farmers in South Asia to give their product the distinctive golden glow favored by buyers. Saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, is a common target of food fraud. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Labor listed cloves from Tanzania, cumin from Turkey, pepper from Vietnam and vanilla from Madagascar and Uganda as goods for which evidence of child labor has been found.

The environmental issues pervasive in industrial agriculture are not absent from the spice industry, either, even though spice farms can be relatively small in scale. Likewise, “Climate change poses significant challenges for spice cultivation,” says Jennifer Boggiss, co-founder and CEO of New Zealand- and Tonga-based Heilala Vanilla. “Many spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and vanilla are native to specific regions with rich biodiversity,” often in parts of the Global South that are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis. In India, for example, warming temperatures have already been associated with cardamom blight in the state of Sikkim and decreases in yields of Kashmiri saffron.

Building a better system

Turmeric is wild-harvested on the property of one of Naledo’s partner growers in Belize. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Naledo).

“We get companies that will email us to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got turmeric. You want to buy it from us?’” says Nareena Switlo, co-founder, with her mother, Umeeda, of the turmeric paste company Naledo. “When we see the prices that they’re offering, you think, ‘There’s no way anybody in your supply chain is living in anything but poverty.’” In an industry in which “the cheapest still wins,” she says, this is hardly unusual.

The Naledo story encapsulates the global reach of the spice industry: A Canadian company rooted in the Indian diaspora, its turmeric is grown and processed entirely in Belize, where the root had been introduced by indentured servants during the period of British colonial rule. While working in Belize as an advisor on youth and enterprise, CEO Umeeda Switlo saw that turmeric was now wild-harvested mostly in Mayan communities and grew abundantly without any intervention. Naledo pays them up to 7.5 times the fair trade price, and has built a production facility to create value-added local work. “If you wanted to know which farmer actually grew the turmeric in your bottle, and when we bought it, we could tell you,” Umeeda says.

Within the past decade, reappraisal of antiquated supply chains has spurred the development of a new type of spice company. More businesses are sourcing directly from the people growing the spices and paying far higher than commodity prices, cutting out the many intermediaries that keep farmer incomes low and reduce the quality of the product. Turmeric was also the starting point for Diaspora Co., a notable early innovator that has since expanded to offer 30 different spices — sumac from Manipur, garlic from Uttarakhand — all grown on family-owned farms that follow a regenerative model. Other companies that have emerged in the past eight or so years include Burlap & Barrel and Curio Spice Co., which, like Diaspora Co., offer down payments to the farmers they work with so they don’t have to wait for harvest time. Down the Road Spice Co. focuses on USDA certified organic masalas, while Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen (founded by London chef Zoe Adjonyoh) works with Black African farmers growing spices like iru beans and grains of Selim. Several companies source Afghan saffron with an eye toward uplifting growers and communities economically, including Heray Spice, Rumi Spice, Tahmina and Moonflowers.

In addition to the social enterprise aspect, direct sourcing provides an opportunity to implement more sustainable practices and work with growers to do the same. “Maintaining healthy soil is crucial,” says Boggiss, who notes that the Tongan family farmers from whom Heilala sources have recently planted windbreaks of Pacific kauri trees and vetiver grass to prevent soil erosion. The company also tries to minimize waste by using every part of the vanilla bean — not just the fragrant seeds — in its various products.

“Sustainable sourcing is gaining more focus,” says Laura Shumow, executive director of the American Spice Trade Association (ASTA). “In the past, sustainability has been a way for certain companies to differentiate themselves to a specific set of consumers, but we expect that in the future sustainability will become a baseline requirement for the entire industry.” Even McCormick & Co., the world’s largest seasonings company, has announced much-publicized commitments to sustainability and economic resilience for farmers. Last year, ASTA signed a memorandum of understanding with the Sustainable Spices Initiative (SSI), a project that brings together companies and NGOs, which Shumow says “is working against specific benchmarks” for future production. The SSI also has local platforms in Vietnam and India with partners on the ground to help farmers implement more sustainable practices, like integrated pest management.

Making local spices a reality

Chiles drying at Boonville Barn Collective in Mendocino County, California. (Photo credit: Nikolas Zvolensky)

Krissy Scommegna, owner of the California chile farm Boonville Barn Collective, first noticed the opacity around spices and the limits of local sourcing during her former career as a chef: The restaurant where she worked, in Mendocino County, used mostly produce grown on-site or purchased from farmers they knew, but the seasonings were an exception.

“I wondered what that would look like if we could do the same for some of our spices,” she remembers. The menu at the time relied heavily on piment d’Espelette, a chile from the Basque Country of France, which Scommegna realized could grow well in Mendocino thanks to the similarities in climate. Her operation has since expanded, now growing 12 chile varieties that are turned into powder, dried whole or used for salsas and marmalades.

A more sustainable, ethical spice trade might involve growing a more robust spice industry domestically. These ingredients have largely been left out of local food movements — and though many spices come from tropical plants that won’t easily grow here, local seasonings are more within reach than many realize. Some companies are already sourcing from small spice farmers in the U.S.: Burlap & Barrel offers chiles and curry leaves from California, as does Curio, which also has California-grown fennel pollen and makrut lime leaves, New Mexico chiles and Massachusetts paprika. Farms from Texas to Vermont are now growing saffron; the South has a modest sesame-growing industry. Farmers in Hawaiʻi have already been experimenting with growing cloves, cinnamon, allspice and more.

“In terms of emissions, our chiles haven’t traveled around the globe to get to our customers,” Scommegna explains, and doing a lot of the production work by hand reduces emissions even further. She also cites other aspects of sustainable production, like labor protections and stable, long-term employment for workers, as being easier to guarantee with a more focused operation. And the local scale makes for a better product, she says: The September harvest will be processed and packaged by the beginning of November, never having traveled more than a quarter mile.

Is ‘single-origin’ enough?

As with other imported products, notably chocolate and coffee, you’ll often see specialty spices labeled with the phrase “single-origin.” Though this often indicates some intentionality around quality or traceability, Shumow identifies it as a marketing term more than a technical certification, noting that, while “there seems to be a perception that this term is linked to more sustainable practices,” she wasn’t aware of any regulatory bodies that had explicitly defined the parameters.

In general, “single-origin” means that the product in question was sourced from one place — though the scope of that place can vary. Sometimes, it means everything was sourced from the same growing region; in other cases, as with Diaspora Co., each spice comes from one independently owned farm. (The company has all partner farms plotted on a sourcing map, which links out to information about the individual farmers and ingredients.) Either way, these products represent a level of divestment from the commodity supply chain, in which spices of various ages, from various places, are typically mixed together. But it’s important to remember that not all companies who fit the “single-origin” description will use the term.

There are also other, more formalized labels that can help you buy better spices. The SSI has formalized a “basket” of approved standards, which includes Fair for Life, Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade certifications, though these are often better indicators of worker welfare than of environmental efforts (for example, none of the three prohibit synthetic fertilizers or sewage sludge). Some spice companies, including Naledo, Rumi and Heilala, are also registered as public benefit corporations, or B Corps. Organic certifications are common, too, but not every spice farmer can easily get their operation certified — it is often a costly process — even if they are essentially meeting the standards already.

Boggiss cautions that, when shopping, “it’s essential to go beyond the label.” Research where the spices were produced; with vanilla, as with many other spices, “some regions have better sustainability practices than others.” You can also look for companies that provide information about their business model, explain their sustainability framework, name the farmers or suppliers they work with, agree to regular third-party audits or issue annual impact reports. “Transparency is key,” Boggiss says — “so choose brands willing to share details about their sourcing and production practices.”

While you’re at it, it’s also worth reflecting on history and the unjust systems that have been created in the name of these flavors. “To help dismantle that neocolonialist spice trade,” Nareena Switlo advises, “look for brands that are actually managed and owned and operated” by the people impacted by those colonial structures. “Ask yourself, ‘Who can I support?’”

Top photo by clanci/Adobe Stock.

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