Who Messed Up My Cacao?

How did cacao get so blended?

When you think about it, you have a plantation on an estate with buyers, traders, and chocolate makers. Who’s going to track what cacao bean comes from what plantation; from the start, through the estate, the buyer, the trader, and the chocolate maker? Now technically, genetic collections are in national archives, but to be perfectly honest, there’s not enough money to maintain them or protect them. I am working on a project right now to develop this, as part of a social enterprise work.

We know today that there has been an unfortunate decrease in cacao genetic diversity over the years. Due to the Amazon destruction, a change in patents of land use, pests and disease, sudden weather change, national disasters, and extreme weather, we have a less diverse genetic variety of cacao. This is all due to the hybridisation and cross-pollination over the years to get something that’s very robust and mildly tasty.

Why don’t we plant more extensive or exciting cacao varieties?

Well, the delicious and extensive cacao genetic varieties typically have a low yield. They are high risk because they’re quite susceptible to disease and pests, and the soil environmental conditions have been poor over the last years. I can tell you, the Arriba Nacionale, which is what we work with, is a very sensitive and delicate plant. She only likes certain delightful environmental conditions.

A farmer we were talking to last week was telling us about a mono-crop pineapple plantation next door to him (e.g. they plant only pineapples, not within a multi-diverse agroforestry). He lost the majority of his topsoil because the plantation next door to him was so hard and unnatural to the environment. Ultimately, it affected his naturally bio-diverse cacao plantation. So, it’s not always the stuff we do. And it’s not always the sensitivity of the cacao. It can even be what our neighbours are doing that screws things up.

What do we need to do? What do I take responsibility for?

Cacao gene pool preservation – and that means going around the world, going to different farms, looking at the different genetic varieties, learning myself, masterminding with the other farmers, and increasing our knowledge informally as well as formally, together with formal cacao gene pools. We look to have a safe system for exchanging germoplasm and resources, which are information. And we look to optimise and preserve the genetic diversity that we find it.

For example, just last month, I saw a very ancient Criollo, a Mesoamerican Criollo, that probably came out with some of the early Filipino traders and Spanish colonialists from the mid-1600s. I wanted the National Guard to come out and protect this heirloom aunty of cacao.

Did the chocolate lovers make cacao screwy?

On the other side, while I take half the ownership working in the cacao industry for why it’s not so diverse, it’s important that the consumer take responsibility. And that means, do you really ask enough questions of us? Do you know enough to ask about the origin like you do with wine?

Last time, we talked about how cacao traveled around the world, how all the different genetic varieties got mixed, and switched, and up-scaled, and down-scaled. This is because when you mix two types of cacao beans together (like one that’s highly robust, like a Forastero) with one that’s highly delicious (like the Criollo) you’re going to get a new and weird genetic species: Trinitario.

You might not need to know the cultivars, and the hybrids and the strains – that’s my job to know. But what you can do is ask where it really comes from. And I don’t mean country – it’s like asking a French winemaker if his wine is French (oh the shame!) What you need to be asking is, what plantation, where was it grown, who grew it, what’s the flavour’s going to be like, and what you can expect from it.

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