Monday, May 7, 2018

Global Efforts Underway to Protect Susceptible Cacao Plants

With a background as a Microsoft project manager, Edward Anderton has guided Scarlata Chocolate in Seattle for the past six years as managing director. With a focus on quality, Edward Anderton and his colleagues source fair-trade, sustainably sourced cacao for products that range from truffles to Spanish-style drinking chocolate.

As reported in the New York Times last year, cacao is under increasing threat worldwide, as major producers are reliant on a “narrow set of clones” chosen for mass cultivation in the 1940s. The result is that nearly all cultivated cacao varieties are susceptible to the same blights, such as the fungal disease frosty pod rot, which devastated farmers on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast in the late 1970s. With each infected pod releasing approximately 7 billion spores, regional exports of cacao decreased by 96 percent within five years and the Costa Rican industry remains a fraction of its previous size. 

The most recent outbreak of the fungus was in Jamaica in 2016, and West African cacao plantations are also susceptible. Exacerbating the situation is that cacao trees require climates similar to those of rainforests, and these regions are set to shrink as global warming accelerates.

Fortunately, there are sustainability-focused efforts underway such as those spearheaded by the Cacao Genetic Improvement Program (CATIE), which is working toward creating a diversified base of cacao plants. For example, in one study a CATIE hybrid developed over an 11 year period experienced a five percent infection rate, far less than the 75 percent rate found in control varieties.