Unwrap the world of chocolate and things aren’t always sweet. The cacao plant’s legacy is ancient and complex, while the business surrounding it is bitter, messy and even ruthless. Its future, meanwhile, is both exciting and uncertain.
Back in the Mayan age, around 1100 BCE, cacao was recognized as a “super” food, traded as a precious currency with a value on par with gold. By the 17th century the Spanish added sugar (cane) to sweeten it and the rest is history. As other European countries clamored to get in on the action — and started exporting cacao trees to their colonies — Africa soon became the world’s most prominent grower of cacao, even though it’s not native to that continent.
Today, cacao has devolved into a byproduct of itself. Instead of being viewed as the sacred fruit that it is, with all its nutritional benefits, cacao is largely seen as a candy bar, a mid-day fix, loaded with sugar, milk and other substandard ingredients.
“Most people think of chocolate as a commodity and not a food,” says Jim Eber, co-author of Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. “And the reason goes beyond process and back to a lack of connectivity between consumer and farmer and the work that goes into producing a great bean before a manufacturer can even produce great chocolate.”
Yet, demand continues to soar, in part because more and more unconventional markets (think China and India) are joining the chocolate craze. Currently, the global chocolate confectionary market is worth an astounding $102.3 billion, according to Euromonitor International. In 2012, the head of the United Kingdom’s Food and Drink Federation estimated that in about seven years, we’ll need another million tons of cacao beans in order fulfill consumer desire — that’s the equivalent of another Ivory Coast, the world’s largest cacao producer.
Supply just can’t keep up with demand for long. Companies like Mars, and Nestlehave also expressed concern about the sustainability of the cacao supply. Big Agriculture, climate change, crop rotation, deforestation, cacao’s susceptibility to disease, child labor and dollar signs are just some of the plagues attacking cacao. Still, there is hope.
Chocophiles, scientists and “Big Chocolate” believe that the chocolate center to this tootsie pop of impending economic disaster is the sequencing of the cacao genome.
Hershey vs. Mars: 1- 0
In 2010, a collaborative research team led by Mars (M&Ms, Snickers, Milky Way) scientists, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), and IBM sequenced a type of cacao called Theobroma Matina 1-6.
Rather than keep the genome a secret, they released their preliminary findings online by creating theGenome Database (CGD).
“The [genome] map opens our understanding of the organism for the first time,” says Jimmy Lin, a computational genomics researcher onfaculty at Washington University in St. Louis. Lin is part of the team that sequenced the human genome at Johns Hopkins. “Like the sequencing of the human genome, endless possibilities are now open. However, further work is needed to decipher the genome to possibly modify it for pesticide resistance, flavor enhancement, longer survival, etc.”
Dark Side of Chocolate
To fully understand the scope of chocolate, you need to understand the enigmatic, high-maintenance, and pesky nature of cacao. For starters, the plant flourishes in a specific limited geography, says Eber. No one has been able to grow it outside of the so-called “20/20 zone,” which is 20 degrees north and south of the equator.
Meanwhile, except for some of the hybrids and clones, which we will get to later, cacao needs shade. Plus, it’s a slow-growing tree, meaning even though it needs cultivating all year round, it takes at least five years to mature. When it does bloom, the fruit pods grow on the trunk rather than the leaves, making it tricky to harvest with mechanized systems. Instead, dedicated farmers and intense manual labor are required.
As Eber says, you can’t just shake the tree and expect cacao to fall like olives; the pods must be hacked down. And you can’t just put seeds in the ground and grow more; the plants must start in a nursery or be grafted.
No wonder cacao was regarded as sacred in past times!
Furthermore, cacao is highly susceptible to disease and insects even in the best conditions, says Eber. Indeed: Mars told the Washington Post that cacao farmers suffer about $750 million in damages each year.
If cacao does survive, then the demands only escalate through harvest and post-harvest — particularly fermentation and drying. Human touch is essential.
“Pardon my French, but cacao is a pain in the ass,” says Eber. Which is why a growing number of farmers chop down their cacao trees every year, while gladly accepting seeds and chemicals from agribusiness.
Got Genetically Modified Cacao?
We must begin asking: will our chocolate supply be subject to genetic modification? When it comes to genetic research, scientists exhibit a no-holds-barred attitude, adopting all efforts “to gain a better understanding of agricultural products.” As a result, many foods have been sequenced — rice, grapes, tomatoes, potatoes, papaya, soybean, and sugar beets, for starters. And often, when a crop has been mapped, genetically modification follows. Is chocolate next?
Many agree we’re not ready for genetically modified chocolate. Chocolate is one of those foods people are enamored with. Plus, adds Eber, it’s extremely expensive to develop and nobody’s lining up to fork out that kind of money with the near-guarantee of a backlash.
“The real issue at hand is changing the entire way we think about [chocolate] from gene to bean to bonbon,” maintains Gary Guittard of the Guittard Chocolate Company, the oldest family owned and operated chocolate company in the United States. “GMOs? That’s probably a long, long way away, if at all. Better living through chemistry and other stuff? That’s still science fiction.”
But it’s not. Certain labs are currently playing with genetically modified chocolate. They’re not yet creating plants to give to farmers, but they do use modification to test and study genes.
Fortunately, resistance is high when it comes to genetically modifying cacao, but that doesn’t mean it’s off the table. After all, do you know the staggering amount of GMO crap goes into making candy, says Eber.
“Given the circumstances and the type of tree we are dealing with, scientists are focusing on selectively breeding cacao more than genetic modification,” says Eber. Unfortunately, selective breeding doesn’t sound much better than genetic modification.
CCN51~ The Bugaboo of Fine Chocolate
After thousands of years, hybridization has become a “natural” part of our agricultural landscape. Scientists like Linn firmly believe this is the route “to understand the plant in finer molecular detail than ever before.”
But some would strongly argue that playing God has disadvantages; it can poison humans and ruin the eco system. Take wheat. In its 8,000-year history as a domesticated food, it has been manipulated, forced and accelerated so much so that the plant we eat today bears little resemblance to its ancestral roots. It possesses completely different nutritional components (i.e. higher amounts of starch and gluten) and many more chromosomal codings, creating all sorts of odd new proteins. No wonder gluten intolerance is becoming epidemic.
Conveniently, cacao is already a hybrid by nature. “If one cacao plant is compatible with another, they will mate,” says Adler. “Cacao is a slut. A cacao pod can even have more than one varietal strain inside of it. It can be pollinated multiple times.”
According to Jim Eber, there are more than 14,000 known varieties of cocoa beans around the world.
The most devious variety however — threatening the integrity of the cacao supply — is the increasingly popular “CCN-51.” This high-yield, low-flavor hybrid “is the bugaboo of the fine chocolate industry,” says Eber. The plant is grown in collaboration with companies like Archer Daniels Midland, Eber says.
Increasingly, growers are replacing high quality varieties with this substandard one. Unlike its relatives, CNN-51 doesn’t require shade in its early years. It’s tolerant to both disease and difficult climate conditions. Farmers earn more to grow it and it has the highest sustained production record of any cacao ever planted anywhere, outperforming all but the more recently planted and far less widespread variety called Super Cacao in Ecuador. Who cares that CCN-51 requires more labor, maintenance, water, chemicals and fertilizer (its root system rapidly depletes the soil of nutrients). With this craze, we run the risk that diseases will become hyper-vigilant and completely wipe out the region’s supply.
As far as flavor profile, words such as “crap,” and “acid dirt” have been used to describe the taste. But have no fear, the bulk of big chocolate and candy companies can burn off tastes in the manufacturing process. And by the time they’ve removed any lingering residue, there’s actually very little cacao left in the candy.
Fine Flava Flava
The genetics of cacao are a modern dialect few can yet speak, says Eber. Many suspect that regardless of the sequencing of chocolate, the industry will continue to be divided between the big guys purchasing bulk commodity cacao and the small guys purchasing fine flavor cacao. Basically, it’s those focused on candy and cash against those who care more about flavor and the environment.
After witnessing the cozy relationship between the FDA and Big Chocolate, the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) partnered with the USDA/ARS to create the “Heirloom Cacao Preservation” (HCP). Their objectives: to identify the finest flavor beans, to tie their flavor to genetics, and to use that information to improve cacao quality and help ensure fine favor and diversity for future generations.
“Providing farmers with the ability to plant/graft cacao strains of superior quality can provide farmers with a better living and improve the quality of life for their whole family,” says Adler. “I hope the project spurs more consumer interest in chocolate made with fine flavor cacao.”
Adler raises an important point. Everyone who purchases chocolate can play a large role in this initiative. As Eber says, chocolate should not be a cheap indulgence. Consumers can vote with their palates and dollars for high integrity chocolate.