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Early harvests of Madagascar's vanilla crop to erode quality

ANTANANARIVO, June 2 (Reuters) - Premature harvesting of Madagascar's vanilla crop to ward off theft of the pricey beans will lower their quality, industry officials said.

Farmers in Sambava, the crop's main growing region in Madagascar, the world's biggest producer, have been harvesting before time due to fear of thieves.

"With so much vanilla immature, it is clear that the product will be of poor quality," said Georges Geeraerts, head of the vanilla exporters group of Madagascar (GEVM).

He said the vanillin content in the beans could drop to 1 percent from the usual 1.6-1.8 percent due to premature harvesting.

That would translate into the use of 7-8 kg of green vanilla to produce a kilo of processed vanilla, up from the usual requirement of 4-5 kg of mature beans, Geeraerts said.

The beans are often kept under armed guard after prices shot up from around $20 a kg in 2010 to around $500 a kg last year.

"Some people are ready to kill to get some vanilla," Prime Minister Olivier Mahafaly told lawmakers this week.

The flavouring is used in products from ice cream to coffee. Madagascar produces nearly half the world's crop, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

In 2015, Madagascar was estimated to have produced 3,914 tonnes out of a global total of 8,294 tonnes, projected U.N. data showed. No more recent data was available because of the lag in harvesting time.

Alain Rabeharison, a vanilla grower in the Antalaha region, told Reuters farmers had opted to harvest immature beans because they could not hire guards to protect the fields.

In the 15 months to the end of March, Mahafaly said there were 90 cases of vanilla theft, involving 4 tonnes of the beans. A total of 173 people have also been arrested in connection with the theft, he said.

In other instances, farmers were taking matters into their own hands, opting to punish thieves who were caught.

"If we do not kill them, they kill us," said farmer Rabeharison.

Mahafaly said more security forces would be deployed to curb vanilla theft.

(Reporting by Lova Rabary; Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Dale Hudson)

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