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Endangered Chocolate

The botanical battle to save an ancient flavor

By Patricia Gadsby and Dana Gallagher
Aug 1, 2002 5:00 AMJul 12, 2023 6:56 PM


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The cacao tree, once native to the equatorial American forest, has some exotic habits for a plant. Slender and shrubby, cacao has adapted to the shifting shadows of the understory and the life of an underling close to the damp, leaf-littered forest floor. Its large, glum leaves droop down, away from the sun. Cacao doesn't flower, as most plants do, at the tips of its outer and uppermost branches. Instead, its sweet white buds hang from the trunk and along a few fat branches, popping out of patches of bark called cushions, which form where leaves drop off. They're tiny, these flowers. Yet once pollinated by midges, no-see-ums that flit in the leafy detritus below, they'll make pulp-filled pods almost the size of rugby balls. The big, colorful, exuberant pods flop around the tree's trunk and dangle from its branches in a shameless display of ripeness—low-hanging fruit for forest animals that eat the juicy, satin-white pulp inside and disperse its bitter-tasting seeds, the magic beans. Somehow, more than 2,000 years ago, ancient humans in Mesoamerica— the Maya or, more likely, the Olmec Indians before them— cottoned on to the secret of these beans. If you scoop them from the pod with their pulp, let them ferment and dry in the sun, then roast them over a gentle fire, something extraordinary happens. They become chocolaty. And if you then grind and press the beans, which are half cocoa butter or more, you'll obtain a rich, crumbly, chestnut-brown paste— chocolate at its most pure and simple. The Maya and the Aztecs revered this chocolate, which they frothed up with water and spices into bracing concoctions. It was edible treasure, offered up to their gods, imbibed by warrior-priests and nobles, used as money and hoarded like gold. Long after Spanish explorers introduced the beverage to Europe in the 16th century, chocolate retained an aura of aristocratic, cultish luxury. In 1753, in his Species Plantarum, the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus gave the cacao tree genus the name Theobroma, which means "food of the gods." Nowadays, especially in the United States and Western Europe, many of us eat like gods. In the last 200 years, an eye blink in chocolate's history, the bean has been thoroughly democratized— transformed from an elite drink into ubiquitous candy bars, cocoa powders, bonbons, and confections. Indeed, chocolate is becoming more popular worldwide, with new markets opening in Eastern Europe and Asia, including China. And that's both good news and bad. Because while farmers are producing record numbers of cacao beans— more than 3 million tons in the fiscal year 1999-2000, a whole hill of beans— that's not enough, some researchers worry, to keep pace with global demand. Cacao faces not only dwindling habitats but also the threat of devastating diseases. Has chocolate become a victim of its own success? Is it in trouble? One of the worriers is Philippe Petithuguenin, head of the cacao program at the Center for International Cooperation in Development-Oriented Agricultural Research (CIRAD) based in Montpellier, France. At a recent seminar in the Dominican Republic, he displayed a map of the world, sweeping a laser pointer across its midsection to show where cacao grows— on a narrow band within 18 degrees north and south of the equator. In the four centuries since the Spanish first happened upon cacao, it's been planted all around this hot, humid, tropical belt— from South America and the Caribbean to West Africa, east Asia, and Pacific islands like New Guinea and Vanuatu. Today 70 percent of all chocolate beans come from West Africa and central Africa, said Petithuguenin, making circles with his pointer around Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon. And in many parts of Africa and other cacao-producing regions, growers practice so-called pioneer farming. They strip patches of forest of all but the tallest canopy trees and then put in cacao, using temporary plantings of banana to shade the cacao while it's young. With luck, groves like this may produce annual yields of 50 to 60 pods per tree for 25 to 30 years. But eventually pests, pathogens, and soil exhaustion take their toll, and yields diminish. Then the growers move on and clear a new forest patch— unless farmers of other crops get there first. "You cannot keep cutting tropical forest, because the forest itself is endangered," said Petithuguenin. "World demand for chocolate increases by 3 percent a year on average. With a lack of land for new plantings in tropical forests, how do you meet that?"

On plantations the slender cacao tree grows about 20 feet high and bears 50 to 60 pods each year. While the mature pods of some varieties remain green, the pods of other varieties, such as the trinitario shown here, will become red, orange, purple, or yellow as they ripen. Photographed at Manickchand's Estates in Trinidad.

Many farmers have a more imminent worry: outrunning disease. Cacao, especially when grown on plantations, is at the mercy of many afflictions with doom-laden names: black pod rot, a rotting disease caused by various species of the Phytophthora fungi; witches' broom, or Crinipellis perniciosa, which induces malign, brushy outgrowths of shoots before doing in the tree; and frosty pod rot, or Moniliophthora roreri, another rotter that covers pods in a spore-spewing bloom. These fungi and other diseases spoil more than a quarter of the world's yearly harvest and can devastate entire cacao-growing regions. They've had a dramatic hand in shaping chocolate's post-Columbian fate and in creating chocolate as we know it today. When the Spanish arrived in the New World, the Maya and the Aztecs were found cultivating a type of cacao now called criollo, which means "native." Criollos have pointy-ended pods that range from yellow to ruddy orange, often funkily textured and furrowed. Their beans look like fat brown almonds, and when cut open, "the insides, or cotyledons, appear almost white," said Petithuguenin's colleague Michel Jacquet, a postharvest technologist. This pallor is distinctly criollo and a sign that the beans are low in polyphenols, compounds that help confer resistance to disease and turn cotyledons a characteristic purple. But polyphenols also make cacao beans taste astringent and bitter. So the criollo's delicacy, its lack of protective compounds, is part of what makes the beans so very desirable for fine chocolate. Because of their low astringency, criollo beans don't need a lot of fermentation to mellow them. Nor do they need a lot of roasting to develop flavor, so they keep more of their volatile aromas— the special nutty, almost buttery notes that give criollo chocolates such finesse. The Spanish brought these beans home to make the pots of dark, sugar-sweetened hot chocolate, or cocoa, that became so popular, and in the 17th and early 18th centuries, criollos destined for Europe were planted enthusiastically in various parts of the Americas, especially in Venezuela and in the Caribbean. Then they began to die. Of what? One 1727 account described plantations in Trinidad succumbing to a "blast." While blast might have meant a storm, it is more likely, in this case, to indicate blight. Growers in Trinidad decided to reinvigorate their plantations with a new variety entirely: forastero, which means "foreigner," originally found in the lower Amazon and known to local Indians there largely for its fruit. Forastero trees produce beans with purple insides, full of protective but astringent polyphenols. Over time, Trinidad's surviving criollos crossed with these sturdier foreigners and created offspring, often with luminously purple pods, that had attributes of both parents: pale violet cotyledons, good taste with a bit more fruity acidity than criollos, and not quite so quick to sicken. The hybrids were named trinitarios, after their birthplace. Today the criollos, delectable but considered finicky and low-yielding, grow only in tiny pockets, mostly in Central America, Venezuela, and Colombia. Trinitarios, also prized by chocolate aficionados, are cultivated in very modest quantities in the Caribbean, Venezuela, parts of central Africa, and Southeast Asia. Criollos, trinitarios, and Ecuador's unique cacao nacional are known as flavor beans and now account for less than 5 percent of all beans produced. And the workhorses of the chocolate industry? They're mostly forasteros, typically lower Amazon types, members of the same group that crossed with criollos to father trinitarios. In the mid-18th century, European entrepreneurs, eager to get into the Spanish-dominated cocoa trade, latched onto forastero trees as a source of chocolate in their own right. True to their purple phenolic hearts, forastero beans must have seemed mouth-puckering compared with criollos, but they proved sturdy and easy to grow. As time went on and technology advanced, cocoa processors in Europe learned to mellow forastero's more abrasive tendencies. Consumers, too, learned to expect a sharper chocolate flavor.

A cacao tree produces tiny, dime-size flowers on its trunk, a strategy called cauliflory. Once pollinated, a flower will take up to six months to develop into a mature pod. Fewer than 5 percent of all cacao flowers bear fruit.

Forasteros were brought to Brazil in the 18th century and planted extensively in Bahia. From there, in the following century, they were shipped across the Atlantic to European colonies in West Africa. What helped sell them was their potential for vigor and big bean yields. By 2000, West African countries had become the world's dominant cacao growers; almost 60 percent of all chocolate was coming from Ivory Coast and Ghana, more than 40 percent from Ivory Coast alone. As for Brazil, it ascended to number one in South America and was number three in the world and steadily rising only a decade and a half ago. Then in the late 1980s, calamity struck. No one in the chocolate world much likes talking about Brazil's misfortune, yet no one seems able to leave the topic alone. The sequence of events is somewhat sketchy. By accident or by design, but almost certainly by human hand, witches' broom was introduced into the forastero-growing region of Bahia. "You have to suspect it was brought in," said James Saunders, a biochemist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Plant Sciences Institute. "There was no trail of infection into Bahia from an area where witches' broom was present. No gradual transition over land. Witches' broom appeared at a seaport in Bahia in the late 1980s, and suddenly, there was a new pocket of infection." Yields plummeted in Bahia, and the decline spread. Between the mid-'80s and 1998, cacao production in Central and South America fell by 75 percent. Saunders pointed to a map. "This is Bahia," he said, tapping a knuckle where northeastern Brazil bulges out into the Atlantic. "And this," he said, moving his finger due east across the Atlantic, "is West Africa." Another soft tap. "Not that far apart." Transatlantic trade has brought the two continents into close contact, says Saunders, and "if a truly devastating disease like a witches' broom reached Africa, it could be catastrophic." What made up for Bahia's crash was West Africa's continued skyrocketing surge. "Had cacao not been transported to Africa in the 19th century, there would have been major shortages in the 1990s," he added. "Production would have diminished to one-quarter of what it was." A chocolate nightmare. If another top producer had the misfortune to falter now, the ripples would be felt the world over. In the United States, for example, imported cacao is the linchpin of an $8.6 billion domestic chocolate confectionery business that in turn supports the nation's dairy and nut industries. "Twenty percent of our dairy products go into confectionery," said Saunders. "Plus over 20 percent of our peanuts and 40 percent of our almonds." In 1995 the Department of Agriculture began earmarking about $1.5 million a year for cacao research. By 2002 that amount had climbed to almost $4 million. But there was another consideration. Cacao may support billions of dollars in business, but it's planted mostly in small leafy plots by farmers just barely getting by, with little idea of their beans' ultimate worth, living in communities that are poor, remote, and vulnerable to exploitation. No surprise, then, that in several Central and South American countries, farmers raise narcotics instead: coca or, increasingly, Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy used to manufacture heroin. "On a profit basis, no, cacao isn't competitive— farmers get four times as much for narcotics crops. But you risk jail and are exposed to drug lords who might shoot you," said Saunders. "When you factor in life expectancy, the safety of your kids, and the stability of your village, cacao becomes a more attractive alternative. But disease is a disincentive to grow it. So we need to provide farmers with a resistant germ plasm and biocontrols against diseases and pests."

In a cacao harvest, workers gather ripe pods and extract the bean-laden pulp by hand. The mix is left to ferment for up to six days to reduce the beans' bitterness. To halt the fermentation, the beans are then dried in the sun, as shown above on Manickchand's Estates, a farm in Trinidad.

More than half of the Department of Agriculture's cacao research budget is going toward sweeping genetic studies of cacao varieties in the Americas, the plant's place of origin. Every cacao-growing country has its germ plasm collections, living libraries of trees, labeled according to strain. But the collections are full of duplications and mislabelings. "Of the 2,600 accessions at Trinidad's Centeno Farm, 20 percent to 30 percent are mislabeled, and that's the best collection available," said Saunders. "I'm describing a mess." Saunders's job is to identify plants properly through genetic fingerprinting, with a view to preserving as much diversity as possible. The ultimate aim is to avoid a repetition of what happened in Bahia. By pinning so much faith on a small number of forastero cultivars, farmers in Bahia and throughout Central and South America had come to rely on a very narrow genetic range, and there's nothing so vulnerable as a homogeneous crop when the wrong pathogen comes along. Probing all the archival germ plasm for genes that help plants resist diseases is the task of Ray Schnell's team at the Department of Agriculture's Subtropical Horticultural Research Station in Miami. "If you identify varieties with genes that fend off witches' broom, say, then growers can use them to breed resilient plants with greater efficiency," said Schnell. "They'll still be using traditional breeding methods— no one's genetically engineering chocolate."

The Good: Trinitario PodSurrounding the beans inside a mature cacao pod is a sweet white pulp (below) that tastes like lemon and has a pearlike texture. Native Americans feasted on this pulp long before they began exploiting the chocolate flavor in the beans. Fresh cacao beans range in hue from cream to purple. The beans shown here are trinitario, a hybrid of the criollo and forastero types.

The Bad:Witches' BroomWitches' broom, or Crinipellis perniciosa, is a fungus that grows on cacao trees and infests cacao pods. A spore-producing mushroom, or basidiocarp (below, left), may be capable of distributing 80 million to 90 million basidiospores. Witches' broom is estimated to wipe out 275,000 tons of beans each year, mostly in Latin America. No methods exist to control its spread.Photographs left, courtesy of Scott Bauer/ARS/USDA; right, courtesy of John K. Bowers/ARS/USDA.

The Ugly: Black PodBlack pod rot, caused by Phytophthora fungi, can destroy almost 500,000 tons of cacao beans each year. The pathogen infects the pods, stems, leaves, and roots. Frequent harvesting may save the bean before the infection reaches the interior. Black pod rot is especially severe in central and West Africa, which produce some 70 percent of all cacao beans.

Even terrific plants are useless, however, if there isn't somewhere to grow them. Deforestation, a problem everywhere chocolate is grown, has made sustainability the word on everybody's lips. Many approaches to sustainable farming involve land rehabilitation— recycling weedy spaces into cacao fields, reclaiming old farms— and adopting cultural practices that prolong a farm's productive life. "You can sustain plantations for longer periods if there are enough shade trees to recycle nutrients and maintain global fertility— similar to a primary forest with an undergrowth of cacao trees," said Petithuguenin. "But you get fewer beans than you would in a plantation with more light and fewer shade trees and that's maintained by fertilizer. So to get more value, farmers often plant a mix of cacao and other tree crops." Cacao trees dispersed in a woody mix take more time to care for and harvest; but greater crop diversity can also help stabilize a farmer's income and keep some diseases at bay. Agroforestry pushes this line of thinking even further, beyond improving plantations to creating new forest. "If you believe in biodiversity, it's the way to go," said Howard-Yana Shapiro, research manager for plant science at M&M/Mars, a division of Masterfoods, USA, who is working with federal and state agencies in Brazil to test new strategies in the field. "Take a despoiled area on the fringe of pristine forest," he said. "Replant it to create a buffer for the forest and a foundation for its expansion. If we do our job right, we'll mimic as much as possible a wild cacao forest in Ecuador. What you want is a cacophony of trees, multi-strata, not just canopy and understory. You want ground cover, shrubs, small trees, intermediate ones, and canopy, plus a robust soil life underneath it all to maintain and expand its existence." Besides cacao, such plantings as fruit trees, spice shrubs, and income-producing timber trees could be part of the mix, tailored to local growing conditions and markets. Typically, farmers who grow cacao get a pittance for their beans compared with the profits reaped by the rest of the chocolate business. Most are at the mercy of local middlemen and aren't well organized for collective bargaining power. So in most countries, they receive nothing like the going market price. To make matters worse, the price of beans has languished for years. But the economics of cacao is rapidly changing because of a diminishing supply of beans. After bumper crops from 1990 to 2000, production in Ivory Coast and Ghana, the top two African chocolate powerhouses, has flagged for two years in a row. There's also a new disease, a fulminant type of black pod rot, caused by Phytophthora megakarya, which is spreading from central Africa through Ghana and may destroy a lot of beans. Suddenly prices, already on the rise last year, jumped from $1,212 per ton last December to $1,481 in late May. Assuming some portion of the higher prices gets passed back to the farmer, however, there should be renewed incentives to grow cacao. "Chocolate isn't going extinct," said Eric Rosenquist, who works on developing international collaboration for the U.S. Agricultural Research Service's national program. But cacao is astonishingly under-researched, given the size of the industry. It's "an orphan crop," said Jeff Morgan, director of scientific and external affairs for Masterfoods, USA. After witches' broom swept through Bahia, his company took the lead in rounding up industry funding for various cacao research projects. Aided by human ingenuity, chocolate has weathered storms and blasts in the past. So no doubt, with new, urgent attention being paid to its genes, farming practices, and biocontrols for its pests and diseases, chocolate's going to stick around. But what kind of chocolate? If cacao— which essentially means forasteros nowadays— is an orphan crop, where does that leave criollos, trinitarios, and nacionals?

These flavor beans now amount to about 100,000 tons a year, one drop in an ocean of forasteros. That doesn't give them much research clout. And even though flavor beans fetch a premium, farmers prefer to plant forasteros, which are high-yielding and easy to grow. Most of the flavor beans that are produced are snapped up by makers of intense chocolates with a much higher cacao content (70 percent or more) than your typical sweet milk-chocolate bar. The beans are used either in deeply complex, symphonic blends— often including premium forasteros for oomph— or in "exclusively derived" chocolates featuring beans from just one region or estate, or even just one bean type. Either way, the focus is on highlighting chocolate itself. "It's not about sugar and texture but about flavor. We are finally tasting chocolate again," said Pierrick Chouard, of Echocolates, a source of several European lines using fine and flavor beans. The trend toward purer, concentrated chocolate was launched in Europe by relatively small companies like Valrhona and Michel Cluizel. While the flavor intensity is not for everyone, it's starting to catch on here too. "You're selling civilization short if you think people can't be more interested in what they eat," said John Scharffenberger, a self-described upstart in this bold new world of chocolate, whose company in Berkeley, California, makes a small range of artisanal blends. "There's so little chocolate in some products now, it's becoming a food coloring." With flavor beans in such short supply, however, a number of companies have decided on the same strategy. "You have to get as close to growers as possible," said Valrhona's Isabelle Vallat. "Empower the farmers by guaranteeing them a higher price for their beans," added Chouard. "Provide beans and funds so they can keep their farms. Encourage shade growing. Support a way of life." That movement may revive trade in criollos, the oldest and most embattled of the flavor beans. You could, of course, just preserve the beans, all neatly tagged and numbered, in a germ plasm bank. But if farmers don't grow criollos and bring them to market, their taste is as good as gone. And if we let go of criollos, the old heirloom beans, we don't just lose a piece of our human taste repertoire, we lose a bond to two great American civilizations. These beans may no longer be precisely the same as the chocolate the Maya and the Aztecs thought was so heavenly— but they come as close as it gets.

The last stage in a cacao harvest is peeling the papery, protective husk off the dried beans and sorting them into sizes and grades. The beans are bagged and sold to chocolatemakers.

Chicago's Field Museum currently has an exhibition devoted to chocolate. Explore the exhibition online at www.fmnh.org/Chocolate/exhibits.html. In conjunction with the exhibition, the museum has published Chocolate: The Nature of Indulgence by Ruth Lopez (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002), an illustrated social history of cacao.

To purchase artisanal chocolates, visit www.echocolates.com and www.scharffenberger.com, which also sells a tin of cacao nibs that includes a recipe for making chocolate.

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