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The chocolate supply is under threat. Will cacao be the next thing to be genetically modified? 

Back in the Mayan age, around 1100 BCE, around the Upper Amazon River Basin, 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.

The Cacao Genome

Today, the future of the chocolate supply is grim. 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 confectionery market is worth an astounding $102.3 billion, according to Euromonitor International. In 2012, the head of the U.K. Food and Drink Federation estimated that in about seven years, we’ll need another million tons of cacao beans in order 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 Nestlé — and even the International Cocoa Organization, which “constantly follows and analyzes” the world of cacao — have 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 for this orphan crop. (The term “orphan” is usually used to describe harvests that are neglected or underutilized.)

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, 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, 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 Chocolopolis, 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 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,” he says.

When Team M learned that Team H was snagging a peer-reviewed publication, they launched a website and blitzed out a PR campaign, “blanketing the world with news reports of their discovery,” Guiltinan says. 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.

“The 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, etc.”

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 such as 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,” Guiltinan says. “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?

Chocolate Supply: The Dark Side Of Chocolate

To fully understand the scope of the chocolate supply, you need to understand the enigmatic, high-maintenance, and pesky nature of cacao. For starters, the plant flourishes in a specified and limited geography, Eber says. 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 house plant and it’s lovely, but it just won’t bear fruit ever unless it’s in that region,” Eber laments.

Meanwhile, except for some of the hybrids and clones, which we will get to that 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 post-harvest — particularly fermentation and drying. Human touch is essential when it comes to the chocolate supply.

“Pardon my French, but cacao is a pain in the ass,” Eber says, 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!” Eber says. “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, papayas, soybeans, 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, Eber adds, 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. 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, 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,” Eber says. Unfortunately, selective breeding doesn’t sound much better than genetic modification.

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 ecosystem. 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,” Adler says. “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 Mesoamerica, and “Forastero,” a native of the Amazon rain forest basin. As soon as they met, these two got it on, creating “Trinitario,” named after the island of Trinidad where their union was discovered.

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,” Eber says. 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 “Colección 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 in the chocolate supply 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 “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 is a modern dialect few can yet speak, Eber says. 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 Mars and Hershey, the Fine Chocolate Industry Association partnered with the USDA/ARS to create the Heirloom Cacao Preservation. 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,” Adler says. “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 (a.k.a. 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,” she says.

Photos by Madecasse.

Maryam Henein is an investigative journalist, professional researcher, and producer of the award-winning documentary Vanishing of the Bees.

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