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PlaNet News & Views

Posted on 27-3-13

Chocolate Is Not Sweet
By Maryam Henein, 27 March 2013,
Pure ancient criollo - an heirloom variety once thought extinct - found in
the forests of Madagascar and used by the bean-to-bar chocolate company
Madecasse Chocolate, helping preserve the variety while raise awareness
about its genetic value.Pure ancient criollo - an heirloom variety once
thought extinct - found in the forests of Madagascar and used by the
bean-to-bar chocolate company Madecasse Chocolate, helping preserve the
variety while raise awareness about its genetic value. (Photo: Courtesy of
Madecasse Chocolate)Truthout needs your support to produce grassroots
journalism and disseminate conscientious visions for a brighter future.
Contribute now by clicking here.
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
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 and
jewels. 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, coauthor 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 to 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, Hershey
and Nestle - and even the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO),  which
"constantly follows and analyzes" the world of cacao - have 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 for this orphan crop.
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 US 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 the Genome Database (CGD), supposedly with the
"common good" in mind. (Those who get access to the data must agree not to
patent anything, like specific genes). When dealing with Big Chocolate and
the possibility that the chocolate supply is endangered, it's smart to
consider that money is also a driving factor. "There is so much genetic work
that can be done based off the results . . . my interpretation is [sharing]
it saves them a lot of time and money. If others figure it out, they can
still benefit from their findings," says Lauren Adler, owner and chief
chocophile at Chocopolis, a Seattle-based chocolatier offering more than 200
artisanal bars of chocolate from 20 different countries.
Mark Guiltinan suggests that the motivations behind the Genome Database may
have been more complicated than simple altruism. Guiltinan is a professor of
plant molecular biology and part of a consortium composed of Hershey,
Pennsylvania State University and the French government (read:
Team Hershey). His group was simultaneously sequencing another variety of
cacao - a high quality Criollo, isolated in the jungles of Belize and
thought to be a descendant of the plant originally domesticated by the
Mayans. Currently, Guiltinan is focusing on how genome sequencing
accelerates the breeding of disease-resistant plants.
I am trying to be politically correct here," he says about the sharing of
the genome. "It was a little more complicated than that. . . . there was a
little bit of a rivalry."
No doubt. Money talks and boys will be boys. Basically, if you melt it all
down, it was a race between two major players in Big Chocolate, Mars and
Hershey: Team M vs. Team H. Who would sequence and decode the cacao tree
first? "We tried to work with them [but] they really wanted to do their own
thing," says Guiltinan, who claims his group first conceived of the idea in
1998, estimating a cost of $80 million. They commenced in 2009 and made the
cover of Nature Genetics just a year later. The journal is a prestigious one
with the "highest impact factor in the science world,"
says Guiltinan.
When Team M learned that Team H was snagging a peer-reviewed publication,
they launched a web site and blitzed out a PR campaign, "blanketing the
world with news reports of their discovery," says Guiltinan. Scientists may
revere published research, but the masses recognize media, which is why Team
M ultimately gained public recognition as the discoverers.
Politics and pride aside, most of the genetic research is centered on
improved breeding practices, disease resistance, productivity, genetic
identification of the beans and flavor. "[T]he [genome] map opens our
understanding of the organism for the first time," says Jimmy Lin, a
computational genomics researcher on faculty 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,
Once Guiltinan's team defines the most important genes for disease
resistance, their next step is to identify plants that have higher levels of
resistance. Scientists like him truly believe that with the cocoa sequence
in hand, molecular biology can be used to improve yields and create cocoa
varieties more resistant to diseases. "We can help cacao farmers, many who
are very poor," says Guiltinan. "By increasing their yield, we can reduce
the work required and potentially double or even triple their incomes." And
ain't that a bite out of the sweet American Dream?
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. "You can grow it as a houseplant and it's
lovely, but it just won't bear fruit ever unless it's in that region," Eber
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. A
perceived inconvenience when it comes to Big Ag's fondness of fast food.
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. One top
attacker is "Witches Broom," a fungus that leaves the plant gnarled like a
broom. It almost wiped out the entire Brazilian cocoa group several years
ago. The other culprit is Frosty Pod Rot, an infection that leaves pods
looking frost-covered. Frosty Pod Rot turned Mexico - of all places - from
an exporter of cacao into an importer. (Interestingly, only the Dominican
Republic has been spared cacao disease.)
If cacao does survive, then the demands only escalate through harvest and
postharvest - 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.
Imagine if Archer Daniel Midland canvassed farmers with handouts of soy seed
and bribe money for growing it. "Hey hey!" says Eber. "If you get a bad
year, you can still plant the following year. With cacao, if you lose a
mature tree, you are going to have to wait years to get another yield."
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, genetical
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
But it's not. Guiltinan and his lab are currently playing with genetically
modified chocolate. They're not yet creating plants to give to farmers, but
Guiltinan does use modification to test genes out. "We modify them and put
them back in the plant. That's how we study them," he says.
Fortunately, resistance is high when it comes to genetically modifying
cacao, but that doesn't mean it's off the table. After all, Eber says, "do
you know the staggering amount of GMO crap that goes into making candy?
"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.
CCN-51: 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."
There are more than 14,000 known varieties of cocoa beans around the world,
the two most prominent being "Criollo," which originated in South America
and traveled to Mesoamerican, and "Forastero," a native of the Amazon
rainforest basin. As soon as they met, these two got it on, creating
"Trinitario," named after the island of Trinidad where their union was
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
Trinitario clone - which is also mixed with the variety known as Nacional
- originated in the '60s in Ecuador. The CCN, Eber explains, stands for
"Coleccion Castro Naranjal," named after Ecuadorian cacao breeder Homero
Castro, and "51" is simply the number of the Trinitario-Nacional hybrid (a
three-way cross) that was the most successful plant he created. Castro died
before he could patent it, which is one of the reasons CCN-51 is so widely
available. The plant is grown in collaboration with companies like Archer
Daniels Midland.
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
hypervigilant and completely wipe out the region's supply.
As far as flavor profile, words such as "horrible," "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
After witnessing the cozy relationship between the FDA and Mars and Hershey,
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.
If we insist on purchasing only higher quality, ethically produced
chocolate, we leave corporations no choice but to cater to our needs, adds
Vanessa Barg (aka Chocolate Girl), owner of Gnosis Chocolate ( Gnosis produces cacao that is certified organic,
vegan, and free of gluten, soy and dairy. "If it lacks integrity, don't buy
it. The company will either go bankrupt or will be forced to change.
What is on the shelf is up to us."