Criollo: An Endangered Variety

Fine cacao production is estimated to account for less than 5 percent of the global market. Criollo variety, the ancestor to a number of contemporary cultivars accounting for the majority of this thin market, is believed to be domesticated by the Mayans during the Classic Period around 900 AD (Penn). While Criollo cultivars are relatively scarce in the contemporary cacao cultivation, they have accounted for the majority of cacao cultivation for most of its history.


reproduction of the colored plate by M.S. Meriam (1705 Amsterdam), The first iconography of Criollos Cacao in America (Dutch Guiana)

Although a number of different factors ranging from the introduction of hybridized varieties across new territories to mass production of chocolate have all contributed to the current preference of Forastero over Criollo, the decline of Criollo is predominantly due to substandard yield and high susceptibility to diseases like witches broom, water-pod disease and brown pod rot. Of the numerous Criollo varieties, the so-called “purest” are in fact the most vulnerable to these diseases.

Distribution of Cacao cultivars around the globe

One of the most sought after varieties, Porcelano, known for the white beans and it’s translucent white juvenile pods is infamously fragile, hard to cultivate, and susceptible to all three diseases. (Ciferri, 387) Porcelano is a non-botanical common name describing the white bean sub-variety of Criollo cultivars in Venezuela, south of Lake Maracaibo. (Presilla, 65) A variety similar  to this cultivar is also found in the Peruvian Nacional varieties with appearance similar to the Venezuelan Porcelano.  Although many of the specialty cacao cultivars have low disease resistance, the substantial premium they could account for in comparison with bulk cacao may be a source of increased income and quality of life in an industry where the average farmer makes approximately $2 per day depending on region and quality of production. (Penn state)


Porcelano Criollo pod in one of the very few remaining Porcelano groves near Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela.

Genetic sequencing results published by Penn State on a number of Criollo varieties have shown that due to the intrinsic self-pollinating characteristics of Criollo as a dioecious plant – a plant that has both male and female organs – Criollo cultivars are uniquely homozygous; their genome contains duplicates of the same gene.(Penn State) This condition, although does not directly cause a disease, is well studied in humans and mammals where genetic conditions, such as lower resistance to disease and autoimmune disorders, may be caused by a pair of recessive alleles. Although this is not entirely studied in the cacao plant, given that the genome itself was sequenced just recently, it is likely that similar duplicate genes may result in lower disease resistance characteristics among Criollo cultivars in comparison to Forastero cultivars.

Genetic sequencing of Theobroma cacao

Genetically modified disease resistant Criollo varieties may be the future of saving this seemingly endangered plant.(Penn State) However, that will further neutralize the gene pool as it will favor the propagation of a single “breed” over a range of available genetic diversity within Criollo varieties. A similar situation in coffee, specifically in the more fragile and lower yielding Caffea arabica, has led to the introduction of a single disease resistant variety that is threatening to neutralize the diversity of Arabica, most notably in the Colombian market. An alternative solution is to promote cross-breeding of varieties within the Criollo family in order to increase the diversity. In turn, specialty cacao, much like wine and specialty coffee can focus on designation of origin, not only in regard to plant variety, but more importantly in relation to terroir.

Quality and taste profile of cacao beans have as much to do with the specifics of a place as it does with the particularity of the plant variety. Cacao prefers shade, yearly temperature of around 21 to 32 degrees Celsius. It prefers high humidity that is consistent across the year with no droughts and monsoons. The preferred soil is relatively sandy, nutrient rich, slightly acidic and well-drained with substantial depth that allows for the growth of cacao’s tap root. Cacao has an unusually deep root system for a tropical plant, because it naturally grows in well-drained riparian-zones. All of the above characteristics mean that cacao is highly particular, but as the cacao industry has shown, Theobroma cacao can tolerate conditions different from those listed above. The varying conditions are likely to – as of in the case of coffee and wine – contribute to place-specific taste profiles that may be marketed under specific designation of origin, much like the concept of Appellation in the French wine industry.
The argument here is to suggest that specialty could be different from the Eurocentric notion of purity; purity as it was found in a seemingly static state in one moment in time and history. Perhaps the cacao plant could cross-breed across different varieties with more attention given to particulars of “place” as opposed to specificity of cultivars.

The Atlas of Economic Complexities interactive map 



Ciferri, R., and F. Ciferri. “The Evolution of Cultivated Cacao.” Evolution 11.4 (1957). Web

Penn State. “Finest chocolate may get better: Cacao tree genome sequenced.” ScienceDaily, 28 December 2010. <>

Presilla, Maricel E.“The New Taste of Chocolate.”Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. 1-59. Print

Zhang, D. “Genetic Diversity and Structure of Managed and Semi-natural Populations of Cocoa (Theobroma Cacao) in the Huallaga and Ucayali Valleys of Peru.”Annals of Botany” 98.3 (2006): 647-55. Web.


Media Sources:

Merian, Maria Sibylla.Veranderingen der Surinaamsche Insecten. 1705. Engraved by Pieter Sluyter.

Xavier Algout,“The Genome of Theobroma Cacao.” Nature Genetics 43 (2011).



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