We don’t really need another crisis at the moment and there are more important things to worry about than the supply of chocolate. Nevertheless, a world without chocolate would be a diminished form of existence.
Cacao crops are under constant threat from disease and environmental pressures. Yet producers continue to plant only a narrow range of varieties and that has experts concerned.
“Most varieties produced worldwide belong to a narrow set of clones selected in the forties,” said Wilbert Phillips-Mora, who oversees this collection of 1,235 types of cacao trees and heads the Cacao Genetic Improvement Program at C.A.T.I.E. (an acronym in Spanish for the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center).
A narrow gene pool means that most commonly cultivated varieties of cacao are susceptible to the same diseases, and these blights can spread quickly.
In the early 1980’s frosty pod rot virtually killed off cocoa production in Costa Rica and Phillips-Mora argues it could happen anywhere
“For me, the cacao industry is in permanent risk, because intentionally or unintentionally this disease could be spread in just one flight,” said Dr. Phillips-Mora. Increasing travel and commerce in the developing world have provided new pathways for infection.
The threat of disease, especially exacerbated by climate change, makes growing cacao a risky business.
These difficulties make cacao ever less appealing to producers; yields and profits are low, and the average cacao farmer is aging. The next generation seems to be abandoning the family business.
Yet demand for chocolate is rising, especially as gargantuan markets like China and India indulge a taste for what used to be a treat primarily for American and European consumers. A chocolate shortage may be on the horizon.
Dr. Phillips-Mora’s project of creating greater genetic diversity in the cacao plant population may be all that stands between us and a world without chocolate.
In the early 1980s, Dr. Phillips-Mora worked to identify the most naturally tolerant and productive cacao trees, then painstakingly hybridized the candidates to create novel varieties.
Apparently, these new varieties are more productive and more disease resistant than conventional varieties, yet have all the flavor characteristics that chocolate lovers crave.
Dr. Phillips-Mora, a grateful world turns its lonely eyes to you.