Witch’s broom. Frosty pod. Horsehair blight. No, those aren’t medieval hexes—they’re modern diseases that plague cacao trees, creating a worldwide chocolate shortage that experts say will only get worse.
But this isn’t the first time we’ve had this problem. In the 19th century, Trinidad and Tobago* was among the world’s top five producers of cacao until disease decimated the country’s crop and its economy. That’s why Trinidad created the Cocoa Research Centre, which, along with the accompanying International Cocoa Genebank, houses 2,400 types of cacao. Now the center may just solve our current cacao conundrum and make chocolate taste better while doing so.
The center uses maps of the cacao genome to identify markers for different traits, upping the value of seedbanks in the 21st century and changing the way species advance.* Though plants (think corn) have co-evolved with humans for centuries, they’ve never done so at such a rapid pace. Through genomics, the CRC can actively simulate evolution on a computer to virtually create new strands of cacao that are bigger and better, all without waiting for plants to grow. That knowledge informs breeding programs at farms around the world.
The CRC, which has been around in some incarnation since the 1930s, uses its 2,400 varieties of cacao (which represent 80 percent of the cacao in the world) to research and eliminate diseases. For example, when witches’ broom devastated the industry in Brazil in the 1980s, wiping out entire crops, genetic material from Trinidad saved the day.*
The center continues to research and knock out diseases today, and its findings help the industry move forward. In fact, Professor Pathmanathan Umaharan said, “Most technologies practiced around the world were developed at the research center.” Marañon Chocolate’s Dan Pearson (whose cacao Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert used to make their infamous Good & Evil bar) said, “In the mass market we’re facing a shortage, but in fine chocolate we’re facing extinction. For both reasons, the center is critical.”
What does he mean? Essentially, it’s not all about disease. For years the chocolate industry has been trying to solve the old quantity-vs.-quality riddle. The best-tasting cacao beans, called “fine flavor cacao,” come from finicky trees that are prone to up and die. And even if they survive, they yield fewer beans. On the other hand, the heartier trees produce big beans and plenty of them. But the cacao, well, it doesn’t taste so great. However, the bulk-chocolate industry (ahem, Hershey’s) has “solved” this problem by overroasting the beans, blending different varieties and then adding a boatload of sugar and vanilla.
The most infamous tree in this story is called CCN-51, which yields almost four times as much as the industry average. Chocolate experts say the taste is, for lack of a better word, disgusting. The center’s research fellow and food technologist Darin Sukha said, “It has very dirty and undesirable flavor attributes that are different from what you find in fine-flavor cocoa and even bulk cocoa.” Nevertheless, big producers like Mars and Cadbury use it in their products.
The center hasn’t given up on flavor, though. In a recent study, Sukha and his colleagues took 30 types of Trinitario cacao that are already resistant to witch’s broom and black pod and compared their desirable flavor attributes with “traits of economic importance.” Two of the 30 combined high yield, butterfat, bean weight, antioxidants and epicatechins with “floral flavor attributes and aroma volatiles.” In other words, a hearty and great-tasting cacao is more than possible: It already exists. In reality, though, the industry wouldn’t switch to these two varietals but instead breed these types with others to create new strains of cacao that suit their purposes.
Another project, headed up by Pearson, is doing something similar. The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Initiative (which both Pearson and Sukha are part of) has identified seven types of exquisite-tasting heirloom cacao. Farmers are now clamoring to grow those varietals, because they can charge higher prices for them within the fine-flavor industry. HCP takes the center’s findings one step further, “into the field,” said Pearson.
But as Sukha said, “There’s no one magic tree.” Going along with that sentiment, the center has culled cacao from its 2,400 trees and sent the blend to bean-to-bar maker Woodblock Chocolate, in Portland, to make a collaboration bar. With only 65 pounds of the cocoa in existence, owner Charley Wheelock will sell the bars for $100, with all proceeds going to the center.*
The bar’s genetic diversity nods at the value of genebanks: In addition to preserving biodiversity, their technology facilitates evolution. Will we ever reconstruct the hundreds of now-extinct species of Theobroma cacao from the Mesoamerican era?* Probably not. But we might create a few that are even better—and longer lasting.
*Correction, Jan. 23, 2015: This post originally misspelled Charley Wheelock’s first name.
*Correction, Jan. 25, 2015: This post originally misspelled Tobago and misstated that the Cocoa Research Centre has mapped the cacao genome. It has not; Mars and CIRAD have mapped two cacao genomes. The post also misstated that material from the International Cocoa Genebank helped the cacao industry recover from witch’s broom in the 1980s. It was genetic material bred by Trinidad’s Ministry of Agriculture that helped the cacao industry, specifically in Brazil.