The ordinary consumer does not usually pause to reflect on the origins of the chocolate he/she consumes. Yet, the ingredients of chocolate undergo a lot of processing before they are ultimately turned into a final good. And, before all human-induced processing can ever happen, a growth and reproduction cycle of cacao is absolutely necessary. However, cacao’s future may be under question. Though humans may continue supplying the arduous hand labor required for cacao tree cultivation, cacao diseases prove to be at cross purposes to a threatening level. Plus, with the looming advent of climate change, these diseases may potentially gain more traction, and put at risk global, and not just local, cacao production. Hence, it is an opportune moment for humanity to pool resources into the research and development of barriers to cacao diseases. That is, if it is still in the best interest of society to help cocoa trees survive.
At the heart of this problem is the botanical and natural history of cacao. Theobroma Cacao (theobroma translating to “Food of the Gods”) is the scientific name the naturalist Linnaeus gave to the cacao tree, which bears the fruit essential to the production of chocolate.[efn_note] 1) Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, (Thames & Hudson Inc: 2013), 18. [/efn_note] Cacao’s origin is very likely to have been the northwest Amazon basin.[efn_note] 2) Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 37. [/efn_note] Though there is no consensus on the roots of cultivated Theobroma cacao, the oldest known traces of domesticated cacao date back to 1800 BC, and the Olmec civilization is thought to have been the first to either domesticate the plant or discover the process of using cacao beans to make chocolate. [efn_note] 3) Ibid, 35. [/efn_note]
Theobroma cacao species are very similar regarding their fundamental reproductive cycles. Along the trunk of a cacao tree, small flowers bloom. The lucky ones – those which end up pollinated only by midges – end up giving birth to cacao pods: these contain a sweet, white pulp, which engulfs so-called “beans” (actually seeds), and these beans are the parts which ultimately are used to produce chocolate as we know it today. Wild animals actually seek the sweet, white pulp (which humans remove via fermentation in the chocolate production), and inadvertently end up distributing the beans, aiding the natural cycle. But, the “food of the gods” is quite particular about its preferences: A cacao tree loves the shade, will demand year-round moisture, will not tolerate temperatures below 16o C, and will typically not yield its fruit unless it is within the band of 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the Equator.[efn_note] 4) Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 19. [/efn_note] If cacao pods are in the right conditions to grow, they will take between four to five months to reach maximum size, plus one more month to fully ripen.[efn_note] 5) Ibid, 21. [/efn_note] Cacao’s diffusion across the globe and human selection have together resulted in an understanding of two main subspecies of Theobroma cacao which may interbreed and form fertile hybrids (e.g. the trinitario hybrid): criollo and forastero.[efn_note] 6) Ibid, 26. [/efn_note] While criollo cacao is considered to have a more superior quality, with more flavor and aroma, the forastero cacao is more prolific and accounts for more than 80% of the world’s cacao crop.[efn_note] 7) Ibid. [/efn_note]
This burdening list of demands does not diminish the historical, standing desire for the food of the gods. Indeed, these demands might as well add to the value of cacao. A cacao bean mostly consists of fat, while less than 10 percent of its weight is protein and starch.[efn_note] 8) Ibid, The True History of Chocolate, 28. [/efn_note] Regarding chemical composition, cacao contains two alkaloids (methylxanthines), theobromine and caffeine. Caffeine is addictive, as is sugar, a relatively recent addition tied to European chocolate consumption. Cacao is known for containing hundreds of compounds, among which stands out the antioxidant flavonoid compound, quercetin, “known to have not only antioxidant but also anti-inflammatory activity.”[efn_note] 9) Ibid, The True History of Chocolate, 31. [/efn_note] Given the chemical complexity of cacao, it is perhaps less surprising that it has been associated with numerous different purposes, such as a unit of currency, medicine, sacred symbol, supposed aphrodisiac, congregational drink, and even source of energy and strength. But, the array of diseases cacao is prone to, including “witches’ brooms,” pod rots, and wilts, puts the entire world supply at risk, especially given the small diversity of species.
The Witches’ Broom Disease is caused by the fungus Moniliophthora perniciosa, and prevents cacao trees from reproducing. In Brazil for example, the “Witches’ Brooms ” cocoa disease – spread as part of a malicious political campaign in a late 1980s sabotage against landowners – resulted in a dramatic downfall of national cocoa production, changing Brazil’s role as an exporter of cacao into an importer. In Ventania, a 900-person village in the northeast of Bahia which once flourished with cacao plantations, tragic consequences were visible, and remain evident to this day. Unemployment rose as cattle jobs were far fewer than cocoa jobs. Crime escalated and adolescents were, and continue to be, drawn to drugs and prostitution. Surely, the world has since seen more security checks in airports to help prevent transport and contamination of agricultural crops. Yet, if any disease like witches’ broom disease somehow were contracted in a major cacao-producing country, such as the Ivory Coast, that would provoke disastrous ripple effects.
Many of the technologies taken for granted today are in some way or another a consequence of the homo sapiens’ control over fire and ignition.[efn_note] 10) Harari, Yuval N., Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, (New York Harper: 2015) [/efn_note] To draw an analogy, in the same way that fire plays a critical role in the cooking of a raw meat to be eaten, most of the technology in the business of cacao is concentrated on the processing of cacao into a consumable, desirable chocolate. But, fire is also employable in the defense of a tribe’s piece of meat from a hungry lion, and so must be technology in the face of disease. Extrapolating from this analogy, technological advances have helped civilizations make the most of cacao as a resource for consumer’s demands, but now should ideally begin to shift towards the priority of protecting cacao in its raw form. As Kristy Leissle puts it, accounts for “the world is running out of chocolate” are generally published to increase the supply of cacao and drive down prices for the largest chocolate producers.[efn_note] 11) Leissle, Kristy, (Polity Press: 2018), 178. [/efn_note] Yet, this is not a debate of merely increasing supply, it is about diversifying to diminish risk, and increasing cacao’s immunity to diseases.
That is where genetic modification comes in with a promising future. In September 2018, “the 35 billion dollar corporation [Mars] pledged $1 billion as part of a plan to reduce the company’s carbon footprint by 60 percent or more by 2050.”[efn_note] 12) Vandette, Kate. 2018. “Genetically Modified Cacao Could Stop Chocolate from Running out,” Earth.Com (blog). January 3, 2018. [/efn_note] In the face of climate change, Mars and UC Berkeley are using CRISPR technology to begin exploring gene editing. This information is also supported by Erin Brodwin’s account in the World Economic Forum.[efn_note] 13) Brodwin, Erin. n.d. “Chocolate Could Be Extinct by 2040.” [/efn_note] Human intervention may prove to be essential to the survival of cacao as well as the efficiency of its production.
Benefits of GMOs are already apparent in the cultivation of “gold rice” and potatoes. But, media is a challenge: the wave of non-GMO pressure must be confronted with rational, data-driven evidence along with more personal stories and appeals pathos with which consumers will more sentimentally connect. For example, one way of framing the argument follows:
Harmful pesticides in potato fields are avoidable when gene edited potatoes are immune to pests. In turn, this prevents workers on the field from getting brain damage from the toxic pesticides they spread.
The example above demonstrates an underlying truth: Propaganda and public interaction have a tremendous power to influence people. Seemingly aware of this notion, and with the purpose of diminishing the negative image of GMOs, “an advocacy group for genetic crop modification is giving away 4,000 pro-GMO chocolates for free in the run-up to Valentine’s Day,” reported Jeremy Hill on February 13, 2019.[efn_note] 14) Hill, Jeremy. 2019. “Genetically-Modified Love? Free Chocolate Pushed as Climate Boon,” February 13, 2019. [/efn_note] Yet, because there are still uncertain long-term effects of GMO plants, and some GMOs have negatively impacted butterfly populations, cacao producers should invest in the research and development of GMOs, albeit with caution for unexpected effects.[efn_note] 15) Glass, Emily. n.d. “The Environmental Impact of GMOs – One Green PlanetOne Green Planet,” Accessed in 2019. [/efn_note] Ideally, it would be best if the flora and fauna where GMOs are put in place could be replicated into a sample environment for experimentation. This way, unintended effects may be mitigated, and the public perception of much-needed GMOs may ameliorate. Ultimately, genetic modification may serve humankind as a wall of fire. But, it must simultaneously be supervised, as an unwatched fire may get out of control and cause serious damage.
Brodwin, Erin. n.d. “Chocolate Could Be Extinct by 2040.” World Economic Forum. Accessed March 15, 2019. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/01/chocolate-is-on-track-to-go-extinct-in-40-years/.
Glass, Emily. n.d. “The Environmental Impact of GMOs – One Green PlanetOne Green Planet.” One Green Planet Organization. Accessed March 15, 2019. https://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/the-environmental-impact-of-gmos/.
Harari, Yuval N., Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind, (New York: Harper: 2015).
Hill, Jeremy. 2019. “Genetically-Modified Love? Free Chocolate Pushed as Climate Boon,” February 13, 2019. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-02-13/genetically-modified-love-free-chocolate-aims-to-flip-opinions.
Kristy Leissle, (Polity Press: 2018), 178.
Vandette, Kate. 2018. “Genetically Modified Cacao Could Stop Chocolate from Running out • Earth.Com.” Earth.Com (blog). January 3, 2018. https://www.earth.com/news/genetically-modified-cacao-chocolate/.
Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, (Thames & Hudson Inc: 2013), 18.