Spice trade takes on a new flavour

Reverse direction is the new normal as Silicon Valley dominates

Do you remember the tea clippers plying the oceans or the camel trains bringing exotic spices from the east? Probably not, but those were important trade routes in their day. Flavours and fragrances have always had global appeal.

Since then, coffee and tea cultivation has migrated all over the world, and artificial flavouring has dominated commercial food production. There’s still a demand for the real thing, like organic vanilla from tropical islands, but it commands a hefty premium. Flavours and fragrances, both natural and synthetic, represent a US$ 40 billion global industry.

Now technology is changing the face of trade in tasty edibles and beverages yet again. Using CRISPR-2 genetic editing, companies like Flavorgene are producing plants that yield fruit, seeds and extracts with top taste profiles and the best smells. Soil and climate are irrelevant; for premium products, hydroponics rule.

Not to be outdone, purveyors of artificial scents and flavouring are turning to nanotech to produce chemically identical, in every respect, synthetic spices and taste agents. Samples can be scanned automatically by spectrometer and ‘printed’ out by molecular assembly, for the ultimate in customization and matching.

Traditional regions of origin for exotic spices like India and Malaysia are yielding their market position to new hi-tech producers in unlikely centers. Everyone knows the best curries are found in London, the best beef comes from Japan, and the best whiskey is made in Sweden.

Despite a new trend toward 3D printing complete meals, wealthy foodies and purist chefs prefer to source their favourite tastes from abroad; Champagne from California, tea from Boston, herbs from Vancouver and spices from New York. They want the best.

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

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