A Battle to Save the World’s Favorite Treat: Chocolate

A Battle to Save the World’s Favorite Treat: Chocolate

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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.

That is where Dr. Phillips-Mora’s project comes in. The genetic diversity of cacao, on full display in the International Cacao Collection at C.A.T.I.E., may avert a chocolate crisis.

A Hybrid Solution

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.

Breeding hybrid cacao clones is a lengthy process, and experts worldwide have largely failed in this endeavor. But in 2006, Dr. Phillips-Mora released his first batch of hybrid cacao varieties.

Mr. Alfaro examined a cacao variety from Guyana that demonstrated resistance to frosty pod rot.

Credit
Mónica Quesada Cordero for The New York Times

Wilbert Phillips-Mora, right, head of the Cacao Genetic Improvement Program at C.A.T.I.E. The industry is “in permanent risk,” he said.

Credit
Mónica Quesada Cordero for The New York Times

In terms of disease resistance and yield, the differences were astonishing. Dr. Phillips-Mora’s six hybrids produce on average about three times more cacao than standard varieties; under ideal conditions, the most prolific hybrids can produce six times more cacao.

After an 11-year trial, a hybrid called C.A.T.I.E.-R6 experienced a 5 percent frosty pod rot infection rate, compared to 75 percent infection for a control variety.

“Our goal is not just to produce cacao,” Dr. Phillips-Mora said. “It’s also to give the basic living conditions to the farmers. Most cacao farmers are very poor, because the system is based on material that doesn’t have good yielding capacity.”

Trees that buck this trend could make the family business look more enticing to the next generation of cacao growers. The C.A.T.I.E. hybrids are now growing in all Central American countries, as well as in Mexico and Brazil.

Agricultural yield and disease resistance may benefit farmers, but a cacao crop is worthless if it produces bland or foul-tasting chocolate. Chocolate is the epitome of gastronomic hedonism.

But unlike nearly every other modern effort to increase crop yields, Dr. Phillips-Mora’s breeding program incorporates fine flavor as a prerequisite. Cacao varieties that don’t impress expert palettes are discarded, no matter how well they grow.

A cacao flower being manually pollinated. The hybrid varieties in Dr. Phillips-Mora’s collection cannot self-pollinate, one of several challenges facing the cacao crop.

Credit
Mónica Quesada Cordero. for The New York Times

The result of this protocol is that unlike many other crops favored for agronomics — the Red Delicious apple, the Cavendish banana — C.A.T.I.E.’s cacao actually tastes good.

Chocolate makers are beginning to roast and package Dr. Phillips-Mora’s varieties. Dandelion Chocolate, based in San Francisco, recently released a bar made from a mix of all six C.A.T.I.E. hybrids.

“I think honestly it’s going to be one of our most popular bars,” said Greg D’Alesandre, who heads cacao sourcing at Dandelion. “It has this nice balance of chocolaty and caramel notes, but it keeps it very accessible.”

Dr. Phillips-Mora’s hybrid cacao varieties do not offer a perfect solution to all the crop’s challenges.

They cannot all self-pollinate, and some of the beans are small; they haven’t been properly tested in Africa or Asia, and they are not yet resistant to all the pathogens that afflict cacao globally. Field trials are nearing completion on a new batch of clones bred to address some of these issues.

Moreover, the current roster of C.A.T.I.E. clones were bred in response to known cacao production threats; the future will present new demands. Pathogens evolve. Unstable political situations in the developing world can affect agriculture. Climate change will alter landscapes in unpredictable ways.

The solution is not to replace all cacao with the six available C.A.T.I.E. varieties, but to be able to continue to diversify the cacao materials growing worldwide. Like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the International Cacao Collection is a contingency against future disasters of unknown character.

Whatever fungal mutation may arise, wherever drought may strike, however chocolate tastes may change — there will likely be cacao genes somewhere in the collection that can form the basis of new hybrids to meet future challenges.

Seed pods from different varieties of cacao. The C.A.T.I.E.’s goal is not to replace all cacao with six resistant hybrids, but to be able to diversify the varieties grown worldwide.

Credit
Mónica Quesada Cordero for The New York Times

Still, Dr. Phillips-Mora worries about the future.

Though he works with deep-pocketed companies like Mars, Nestlé and Hershey, the funds he receives are generally earmarked for specific research projects rather than for the maintenance of the collection and program for the future.

He estimates that he receives less than 5 percent of the funds necessary for proper upkeep of the collection each year. So although Dr. Phillips-Mora retired three years ago, he plans to keep working until the solvency of the collection is ensured.

“I will be very happy when I leave this institution to know that the collection will be protected financially,” he said. “It’s a treasure for everybody, for all the cocoa lovers.”

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