The Orphan Crop: A Micro/Macro Threat Examination of Cacao’s Past in Hopes for a Better Future

Preamble: A Perfect Storm

It was one of the most mysterious, dramatic, and shocking events in the history of cacao – something you’d expect played out in an international, quickly spreading and highly deadly bio-contaminant thriller flick made for the silver screens. The Erin Brockovich-esque leads soundly cast in the likeness of a George Clooney or a Charlize Theron; the characters daring, passionate, and totally indignant at the devastation and injustice of it all.

Moniliophthora perniciosa, 2013. Source: United States Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Research Service under CC BY 2.0.

But instead, quietly, it was the late 1980s in the northeastern state of Bahia, Brazil, where one of the world’s most robust cacao producing regions began to mysteriously disappear. Formerly a heavily forested region in the 18th-century, southern Bahia went from producing just “a few pounds of cocoa…into [cocoa being] the main export commodity in the state, contributing more than 50% of Bahia’s exports and more than 60% of the state’s total revenue by the 1970s” (Caldas & Perz, 2013, p. 149). Considered one of the richest epicenters of the Brazilian rainforest, southern Bahia’s biodiversity and unique environment offered a spectacular demonstration of cabruca agroforestry (whereby sustainability is cultivated by interspersing the planting of cacao trees among the forest), allowing for rapid and successful agricultural expansion of the Theobroma cacao throughout the region – impressive for one of agriculture’s most finicky specimens. It could only be described as nothing less than panic, then, when a strange pink growth began to appear on Bahia’s cacao plantations. Moniliophthora perniciosa, or, Witches’ Broom, had come to Brazil. Characterized as a fungus which spreads to the leaves of trees via spores, “the fungus attacks only actively growing tissue (shoots, flowers and pods) causing cocoa trees to produce branches with no fruit and ineffective leaves” (International Cacao Organization, 2015, para. 1). While initially causing the cacao tree to significantly reduce its production of cacao pods, the disease is ultimately fatal. Quick to spread in plantation-style settings, the containment of the disease in 1989 was initially successful after a huge eradication effort was launched by the Brazilian government in conjunction with CEPLAC, but their attempts ultimately proved futile:

[C]acao production fell in some localities by nearly eighty percent. Northeastern Brazil was devastated. The disaster was so great that it had a social impact. Farmers were not compensated for their loss of trees or revenue. People walked away from the land and went to the cities. Equipment lay unused. Even the ecosystem changed, as people converted their land to pasture instead of forest, and water washed the soil away. (Smallman, 2010, para. 8)

Most unsettling, however, was the mounting pile of evidence to suggest the introduction of the disease was intentional, as the “the first introduction had been [traced to] along a road, while the second was along a river. It also did not appear along the edge of plantations, but rather in their heart” (Smallman, 2010, para. 8). Speculations about the incident’s true vector begin with a 1991 New Scientist article stipulating the deliberate introduction of the disease due to political motivations, with a June 2006 Veja magazine article addressing the incident as “an agro-terrorist act…[with] the first goal…to disrupt the political power of the cocoa farmers, and [the] second, to promote socio-economic changes through elections and land redistribution in southern Bahia” (Caldas & Perz, 2013, p. 154).

Mars, Inc. Almirante Farm Director Martin Aitkin and a local farmer assess damage from a Witches’ Broom growth at the Luz de Maria farm in Uruçuca, Brazil, 2013. Source: United States Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Research Service under CC BY 2.0.

For Brazil, it was the tragically perfect intersection of the micro and macro; the tragic collision of the quantitively microscopic and the qualitatively dispersed maleficusness of humans. How did we get here? How did the “food of the ancient gods” and the pleasure of the Hershey-kissed masses come to be the orphan crop brought to its knees? Between cacao’s innate agricultural particularities, its seemingly unyielding assault of biological predators, and centuries of injurious practices by humans, the micro and macro threats to not only the survival, but the betterment of cacao as a species and as an industry, can only be truly understood and addressed with a eye on its (literal) historical roots, and a simultaneous focus on its future micro and macro solutions.

The ‘Old-to-New’: A Journey from Small to Large

Growing only within the region 20 degrees north and south of the equator, Theobroma cacao, or the cacao tree, is well-known as an exceptionally finicky species. It requires constant moisture (but not too wet), lots of sunlight (but not too hot), and needs airflow between its branches (but not too strong) to produce optimal cacao pod yields, and reach optimal lifespan. As a cauliflory plant, the tree first flowers then produces fruit off of its main trunk/woody limbs after about 4-5 years, with the assistance of midges and birds for pollination, and under ideal conditions, one can expect a cacao tree’s total lifespan to be around 30 years. All in all, undisputedly, a “harsh mistress”  (Presilla, 2009, p. 47).

Despite our knowledge of cacao’s current agricultural particularities, relatively little is known from pre-Conquest sources about the agricultural techniques and biological evolution of cacao within and then just beyond its original Mesoamerica homeland. Making its way across the Atlantic in 1528 and soon throughout Europe by way of the Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, by the close of the sixteenth-century, “the first botanical descriptions of the chocolate tree appeared in print in Europe and the first designated shipment of cacao reached Seville, paving the way to the spreading of the use of chocolate” (Lippi, 2013, p. 1574) in Europe. With indigenous or ‘Old World’ Mayan and Aztec cacao applications ranging from a crude yet nutritional gruel or pleasurable drink of the male elites, to use in ritualistic ceremonies such as weddings and death rites, to widespread therapeutic and medicinal application throughout Mesoamerica (Martin, 2016a), developing ‘New World’ industrialized methods for processing cacao as well as a shift in worker wages in the nineteenth-century began to stimulate an insatiable mass-market for cacao. Once such identifiable event was with the emergence of C.J. Van Houten’s hydraulic press, which extracted the cocoa butter from cacao (leaving a compressed, cocoa cake that was easily incorporable into other liquids and solids), effectively reducing the cost of cocoa and making it widely available to the masses (Coe & Coe, 2013). Van Houten’s press, the subsequent series of nineteenth-century inventions and the simultaneous and explosive rise of milk and sugar transformed “what had been little more than a gruel of cocoa and additives…into a delicious drink and an attractive candy bar by 1900” (Satre, 2005, p. 14).

A Vicious Modern Cycle: Supporting the Weight of ‘Boom-and-Bust’

With the progression of cacao as a regionalized, sacred Mesoamerican “food of the gods” to a “[sugary] virtual necessity” (Mintz, 1986, p. 148) of Europe also came the transformation of cacao from a small-scale, family-based system of agriculture to a commercialized plantation economy needed to support the weight of a mushrooming export monoculture. This modern system of agriculture places at its heart only a very few commodity goods, making cacao into a “monocrop at the expensive of biodiversity” (Martin, 2016b), and opening the door to a slew of compounding micro and macro vulnerabilities and threats.

Selective Breeding

Having been virtually chased out of its native Central American habitat due to fungal diseases such as Witches’ Broom, in a confluence of the science, technology, and the agricultural worlds, industries have been searching for ways to breed cacao which are naturally resistant to the most virulent of offenders since the turn of the twentieth-century. Such a practice and process is known as selective breeding, whereby naturally resistant varieties of a species are identified, artificially pollinated, and the resulting progeny once again tested for resistance and selective breeding. Ultimately, the goal of the research centers performing this technique over time was to introduce new genes into the world’s fragile cacao crop, with success measured by both increasingly higher yields with new resistance or immunities to common cacao diseases and pests (Martin, 2016b).

Unfortunately, good intentions sometimes present unintended consequences:

The very efficiency of modern breeding and cloning programs turned out to be a mixed blessing. It rapidly caused the genetic basis of commercial cacao, already narrowed…to shrink more. After a few generations, farms planted with many clones of a few alleged wonder stocks proved more susceptible than anyone had guessed to new troubles and diseases–and some of the old ones as well…The general pattern is the same everywhere: they have become more uniform in makeup while losing the genes that provided ancestral populations with qualities necessary for their survival (for instance, resistance to disease) or for a spectrum of other traits. (Presilla, 2009, p. 49-55)

Additionally, the newfound bulk-growing capabilities of the trees seemed to increasingly reinforce the plantation-style agricultural model on cacao farms, leading to mixed macro benefits from a profit standpoint as well opening the door to unintended vulnerabilities of proximity.

Disease & Chemical Intervention

With genetically weakened cacao varieties now being produced/planted in staggering amounts within finite geographies, true to form, the ‘boom-and-bust’ nature of the macro commodity market helped to both cultivate new threats while simultaneously exacerbating preexisting micro vulnerabilities already in cacao’s wheelhouse:

[T]he supposedly hardy trees of the lower Amazon proved to be vulnerable to disease. Whenever large plantings were made, sooner or later a pest or disease would appear that would wipe out a crop within days or cripple a whole plantation within a year or two…[As a result] in most of the world’s cacao regions only small farmers remained to tend the chancy crop of tiny plots of ground with little between them and ruin. (Presilla, 2009, p. 47)

Brazil’s fatal encounter with Witches’ Broom in the late 1980s is only one example of the devastating and persistent paths of destruction taken by the seemingly endless list of cacao’s biological predators. Often referenced as cacao’s ‘Achilles Heel,’ the plethora of common disease names have come to “strike terror into entire communities or nations” (Presilla, 2009, p. 47), with many of the most notorious perpetrators outlined below:

Major diseases of cacao by region and world production loss estimates, 2012. Source: Rione Drevale under CC BY 2.0.

(For a more comprehensive history, list of symptoms, epidemiology, and quarantine/resistance procedures of these diseases, visit the International Cocoa Organization’s (ICCO) cocoa pest and disease list.)

To further exacerbate yet continue the vicious cycle of unintended macro and micro threats to cacao between heavily commercialized plantation-style agriculture and the seemingly irrepressible diseases known to prey on the already genetically vulnerable crop, the “broad-spectrum pesticides used in farms to ward off diseases…are contributing to the deaths of bees and midges, thereby affecting the reproduction of cacao trees” (Martin, 2016b). Decidedly effective as a pest and disease control technique since the mid-twentieth century, the unintended and hence, ‘broad,’ effects of these chemicals end up targeting critical players in the reproduction lifecycle of the cacao crop, presenting a mixed conclusion as to the long-term economic and environment consequences of another problematic solution-turned-threat.

Light at the End of the Tunnel?

1980s Bahia notwithstanding, the international cacao research community, governmental and non-governmental organizations, and various chocolate industry factions are beginning to unify around efforts to address the growing micro and macro threats facing cacao. Between cacao’s innate agricultural particularities, its unyielding assault of biological predators, and the ever-growing injurious practices by humans, the threats to not only the survival, but the betterment of cacao as a species and as an industry, can only be truly addressed with an integrated approach beginning with its historical successes, and a narrower focus on those modern tools and methods already available to us.

Genetics and Resistance Research

Unlike its commodity crop companions of coffee, tea, and sugar, the narrative and historical record of cacao is woefully incomplete, fraught with misunderstandings, biases, and outright neglect – garnering it the moniker of “the orphan crop” (Martin, 2016b). With little scientific research performed compared to other economically ‘vital’ crops, scientists today have made remarkable strides and discoveries in what we know – and thought we knew – about cacao due to international efforts of cacao genome mapping and DNA analysis by organizations such as the Horticulture Research Station of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA HRS/ARS).

Due to cacao’s nature as a cross-breeding/open pollination species, wading into the world of cacao genetics and logical classifications very quickly becomes a game of guessing, goose-chases, or outright dead-ends, making improvements on select traits all but impossible from a consistency standpoint:

Individual trees bearing beneficial traits fail to produce offspring that consistently bear the same traits. When farmers select seed from their best trees, the resulting trees are often of poor quality, produce low yields and are susceptible to diseases and insects. The only way to produce trees of uniform high quality is by vegetative propagation resulting in exact clones of the parent tree…Unfortunately, high-tech solutions are expensive, requiring government or industry support, and low-tech solutions are slow. Considering the intensive pressure from diseases and insects on the world cacao crop, these techniques fail to meet the farmers’ needs for high quality seedlings. (Bowers, Bailey, Hebbar, Sanogo, & Lumsden, 2001, para. 24-27)

After witnessing the utter devastation endured by the cacao farming industry in 1993 Bahia, international chocolate conglomerate, Mars, Inc., became involved in the USDA HRS/ARS initiative – a game changer for cacao genetics research. As a result of this partnership, there is now the very realistic prospect of fully mapping cacao’s genome, within which scientists can pinpoint favorable traits (e.g., pest/disease resistance, flavor markers, etc.) for a more accurate and targeted approach to selective breeding within the species. Consequently, due to this DNA analysis, “researchers don’t have to grow plants all the way to maturity and wait ten years to select the resistant progeny…[rather] they can confirm resistance in a year or two and quickly eliminate nonresistant trees” (Presilla, 2009, p. 54).

USDA/ARS, National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation (NCGRP), Plant Germplasm Preservation Research Unit (PGPRU), 2013. Source: United States Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Research Service under CC BY 2.0.

Closely coupled with the USDA HRS/ARS and Mars, Inc., Theobroma DNA analysis initiative is the creation of germplasm banks, whose goals include a better understanding of the dependancies and interrelationships between species of tropical ecosystems, protecting the biodiversity of cacao, and optimizing the scientific record to perform more accurate and ideal selective breeding:

DNA testing has made it possible to see that some of the world’s great germ plasm banks have often been full of mislabeled specimens—a hindrance to any scientific breeding program meant to exploit a particular cultivar’s precise qualities…[such as] certain kinds of disease or pest resistance. (Presilla, 2009, pp. 52-53)

A Return to Small Scale

Optimal. Ideally. These seem to be words and concepts no longer a foregone conclusion in the aforementioned narrative, but instead, the benchmark of where cacao agriculture would like to return to or strive for in the future. In rewinding to the conditions prior to an international industry operating around the boom-and-bust nature of commodity markets – that is, rewinding to and the reconsideration of ancient Mesoamerica – these concepts may not have been a foregone conclusion:

Prehistoric peoples in Mesoamerica had the correct approach to farming cacao. Relatively small cacao orchards enclosed by forest or set within small, diversified plots of various crops within the forest optimized the chances for high productivity. Pollination and containment of diseases and insects under these conditions may have been better than what is typically found in large, monoculture-type plantations today. The challenges of disease epiphytotics, insect infestations, poor pollination, and chemical fertilization were minimized because of the practices of the Mayans, Aztecs, and other [M]esoamerican people. They knew that growing “the food of the gods” in small groves reaped considerable harvests. (Bowers et al., 2001, para. 31)

A returning to a small(er)-scale cacao farming model by various cacao producers today has at the very least restated the conversation around long-term sustainable modes of cacao agriculture, defined by The American Cocoa Research Institute (ACRI) as “the production practices in which the small acreage farmer increases or maintains productivity at levels that are economically viable, ecologically sound, and culturally acceptable, through the efficient management of resources” (Bowers et al., 2001, para. 29).

Where From Here?

Given the utter scale of chocolate consumption globally with emerging markets and demand still increasing daily, it’s utterly daunting to visualize what a successful mitigation of micro and macro threats to cacao looks like, particularly given the short- and long-term solutions and initiatives on the table.

Far from depicting a truly comprehensive or exhaustive history or list on the micro and macro threats to cacao (let alone the inseparable and compounding issues of local/national/international politics, race, ethics,  and economic “pressures to grow other crops” (Bowers et al., 2001, para. 8)) the aforementioned narrative is forwarded as an earnest starting point in analyzing many major threats to and some integrated solutions for a healthy and sustainable cacao industry worldwide. It is also important to note that any suggestion to return to many past successes through modern means is careful not to be viewed as either, 1.) A categorical cure-all for a highly complex, globalized web of historical and modern economic, socio- and anthropological factors, nor 2.) A suggestion to romanticize the past by throwing out what truly beneficial advancements the cacao industry has made since the time of the Mesoamericans. As Laudan so accurately argued, “if we romanticize the past, we may miss the fact that it is the modern, global, industrial economy…that allows us to savor traditional, peasant, fresh, and natural foods” (2001, pp. 42-43), including a bar of chocolate.

Despite its history, its evolution, and its successes and failures woven across centuries, cultures, and disciplines, it must be the responsibility of chocolate enthusiasts, academics, scientists, industry leaders, and stewards of sustainability today to continue uncovering and correcting the historical record on cacao’s micro and macro threats through ancient and modern strategies. By returning to aspects of cacao’s past equipped with modern tools, “gradually the many separate pieces of the giant puzzle are coming together” (Presilla, 2009, p. 56), in hopes for a better future.


Bowers, J. H., Bailey, B. A., Hebbar, P. K., Sanogo, S., & Lumsden, R. D. (2001). The impact of plant diseases on world chocolate production. Plant Health Progress, June. doi:10.1094/PHP-2001-0709-01-RV

Caldas, M. M., & Perz, S. (2013). Agro-terrorism? The causes and consequences of the appearance of witch’s broom disease in cocoa plantations of southern Bahia, Brazil. Geoforum, 47, 147-157. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2013.01.006

Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2013). The true history of chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Drevale, R. (2012). Major diseases of cocoa [Online image]. Retrieved from

International Cacao Organization. (2015, April 10). Witches’ broom: Disease symptoms. Retrieved from

Laudan, R. (2001). A plea for culinary modernism: Why we should love new, fast, processed food. Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies, 1(1), 36-44. Retrieved from

Lippi, D. (2013). Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food. Nutrients, 5(5), 1573-1584.

Martin, C. D. (2016a, February). Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods.” E-119: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Lecture conducted from Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Martin, C. D. (2016b, February). Lecture 4: Sugar and cacao. E-119: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Lecture conducted from Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Mintz, S. W. (1986). Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Presilla, M. E. (2009). The new taste of chocolate: A cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. New York, NY: Ten Speed Press.

Satre, L. J. (2005). Chocolate on trial: Slavery, politics, and the ethics of business. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Stallman, S. (2010, March 7). Witches’ broom: The mystery of chocolate and bioterrorism in Brazil. Retrieved from

United States Department of Agriculture. (2013a). USDA/ARS microbiologist Mark Jackson inspects pure cultures of an insect-killing fungus growing in petri dishes [Online Image]. Retrieved from

United States Department of Agriculture. (2013b). Moniliophthora pernicious [Online Image]. Retrieved from

United States Department of Agriculture. (2013c). Mars, Inc. Almirante farm director Martin Aitkin and a local farmer assess damage from a witches’ broom growth at the Luz de Maria farm in Uruçuca, Brazil [Online Image]. Retrieved from

United States Department of Agriculture. (2013d). USDA/ARS, National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation (NCGRP), Plant Germplasm Preservation Research Unit (PGPRU) [Online Image]. Retrieved from


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