What is Cacao

Theobroma cacaoCredit: Forest & Kim Starr [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cacao is a fruit that grows on a tree, preferably in a tropical climate for the heat and humidity. What's most important is that cocoa is made from its seeds and chocolate from the cocoa powder. But the trees around the globe are in danger, and fortunately some scientists/researchers have collaborated with farmers, corporations, government agencies, and universities to find ways for sustaining the fragile chocolate trees - Theobroma cacao.

Major Threats to the Cacao Plant

  • Climate change that has included floods, droughts and windstorms in the Tropics has increased the growing problems for the cacao trees. It can worsen pest infestation and decrease freshwater. One suggestion has been to learn to grow the trees in a higher altitude.
  • Witches' Broom is a fungal disease that has ruined cacao plants in Bahia, Brazil to the reduced production of 80%. Frosty Pod Rot is another fungal disease that has spread throughout Latin America and maybe spreading to Brazil. These fungal infections are a danger to the susceptible plants and there is the question of possible introduction to other tropical areas by bioterrorism acts.
  • Cocoa swollen shoot virus threatens the trees in West Africa. The cocoa pod borer (a moth) does yearly damage in Southeast Asia up to the tune of $600 million in crop loss.
  • Poverty in countries such as Ghana has created barriers between immigrants from poorer areas and property rights have become unclear. In short, farmers don't want to continue cacao farming if their children can't inherit the farms. So, the young folks are leaving for the cities and showing disdain for the hard farming life at such terrible low pay - $1.00/day.

A challenge to the threat-fixing is to raise yields that don't harm the rain forests for arable land. The soil depletion that has taken place already has not helped the growing consumer demand for cocoa and all its goodies. In fact, the agriculture space is being fought over with the demand for biofuels (rice, corn, wheat, palm oil). They may supplant cocoa.

Genome Analysis
The genetic attention given to the biofuels has not been given to cacao until recently. Howard-Yana Shapiro (corporate staff officer of plant science and external research at Mars, and adjunct prof of plant sciences at the University of California, Davis), led the genome sequencing of Theobroma cacao, a global effort. This is a way to find out how to breed hardier trees. It would also help raise yields and save the farming livelihood if it succeeds.

The Mars Corporation has branched into the cacao science big time, and it has done so in a sharing fashion it appears. They really want the future of cocoa to be well. A quote from their site:
Mars, Incorporated believes investment in science and technology is crucial to our success and key to addressing a wide range of social, economic, ecological and environmental challenges. We demonstrate this commitment through uncommon collaborations between academic, government, non-government and industry sectors. We are proud of our holistic approach to science and sustainability and have partnered with leading institutions on research projects such as mapping the cacao genome, understanding the role of genetics and nutrition in animal and human health, developing new approaches to complex food safety issues, and understanding the role of agroforestry in promoting biodiversity.

The intention is to collaborate the molecular research with the cacao breeders on the ground. This is more effective than all the collaborators isolating and keeping the research quiet. There simply is little time left for the making of cacao to be sustainable. Some examples of the collaboration are that some breeders have identified trees that resist witches' broom but produce low-quality cocoa. So, the breeders can use the genome map to find where adaptability can be found in the world's cacao crops. Molecular biologists can identify gene variants from trees that have been found to be resistant to the fungus threats. The breeders share what they find with the other researchers, and analysis and solutions are being found.

The Future of Chocolate on Earth

Improving the Outcome
Water and fertilization improvement is greatly needed for sustainability. Some farmers don't have the know-how to use fertilizers, and even when trained in proper use the difficulty of getting the fertilizer to the farm is quite challenging because the roads are often poorly maintained. Here's where organizations are helping out. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and 16 companies have funded a $40 million dollar program, the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF), to improve the livelihoods of around 200,000 farmers from 5 African countries. WCF field schools are successfully teaching farm safety, disease management, pruning and harvesting, and the avoidance of child labor among other topics that have reportedly helped graduates increase their income by 23 to 55 percent.

Cacao seeds dryingCredit: By frank wouters from antwerpen, belgium (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cadbury's cacao supply heartland is in Ghana. They acknowledge a shortage of cheaper cocoa yet believe the scarcity could be avoided with Fair Trade. A Ghanian manufacturer, Divine Chocolate, is 45% owned by a co-op of 45,000 cocoa farmers, so the value of farming is returned to the farmers and their communities instead of global buyers. Fair trade doesn't exist in all the cocoa growing countries that are in danger so the challenge continues. Nestle is replanting over 10 million trees  in the cooperatives with whom they work, and that will make up for a quarter of the trees lost although it will take a planting time of a decade. Their goal is to then purchase only from the cooperatives they work with, not other local exporters.Cacao tree at US Botanic GardenlCredit: By Missvain (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Although the chocolate future has looked dim, it is hopeful to see what an awareness of the situation has wrought in terms of saving a secure chocolate future. I am optimistic that good forces are coming together to support the challenges ahead. The sustainable programs already put in place for the cocoa industry are actually ahead of the coffee commodity. However, the two often go together so maybe the coffee bean will be helped along by the cocoa saving efforts.