Melt a square on your tongue and immediately you’re connected — to your own senses, but also to the other species and other people who made possible the experience. Your chocolate community includes: the cacao tree, the bacteria that fermented the pods to unlock the goodness inside, the tropical South American forests where the tree evolved, the midges and bats that pollinate the tree, the Olmec people of Mexico who domesticated the plant two or more thousand years ago, the soil and air of the farms in Africa, Asia, or South America where the atoms in the chocolate in your mouth last resided, the hundreds of people, living and dead, who developed and implemented modern preparation methods. Like the taste itself, this web is almost too rich to fully grasp.
But, all is not well in the world of chocolate. The latest issue of Scientific American (print only — the choc feature is not yet online) contains an article by scientists at Mars (yeah, yeah, Venus is next issue) detailing some of the challenges faced by the cacao tree. Domesticated cacao is not very genetically diverse, so disease is rampant. Some areas of Brazil have had their trees almost completely destroyed by fungi. Climate change and shifting socio-economic conditions are both projected to further threaten the crop.
The article suggests a number of ways of addressing these problems, mostly focused on genetics (the cacao genome was recently sequenced) and changed production practices (getting more fertilizer and fungicide into farmers’ hands). Some of these avenues seem sensible — finding new disease-resistant variants — but others have some hidden costs that the paper does not address. In particular, one of the proposed solutions to the problems of cacao is to “creat[e] large plantations…at higher altitude..in the full sun and irrigat[e] them with fertilizer-enriched water.” But, high elevation tropical forests are some of the richest places in the world for biodiversity and this diversity is almost entirely annihilated when forests are converted to monocultures of cacao (or to other crops like full-sun coffee or palm oil).
Interestingly, more traditional methods of cacao cultivation can, according to Smithsonian scientists Robert Rice and Russ Greenberg, support “a greater diversity of tropical forest organisms…than most other lowland tropical agricultural systems.” What makes the difference? These traditional farms grow cacao under a canopy of shade trees. Shade trees provide habitat for many other forest-dwelling species. According to Rice and Greenberg, cacao farms that “incorporate a high diversity of trees with animal dispersed and pollinated fruits and flowers, along with retaining epiphytes, lianas, and mistletoes, will support the greatest diversity.” Further, in places where native forest is entirely gone, shade-grown cacao (and shade-grown coffee) farms provide the only remaining habitat for many species.
Deforestation not only hurts the legions of other species that live in the tropics, but it destroys the wild relatives (and progenitors) of our domesticated crops. So, even from a purely agricultural perspective, loss of wild populations of cacao hinders our ability to find the new genetic variants needed to produce the chocolate of the future.
If loss of biodiversity doesn’t give reason enough to question large technified plantations, then socio-economic factors might. The recommendation to remove shade cover and to increase fertilizer use has, in some cases, not worked in the past: it provides, at best, a short term fix. At worse, it could replicate the coffee boom and bust that drove many farmers from their lands a few years ago.
Unlike coffee, there is no system of certification for “shade-grown” cacao. “Organic” chocolate is more likely to be shade-grown and responsibly produced, but this is an imperfect signal. So, information for responsible consumers is hard to come by.
Should we therefore stop eating chocolate? Ouch — I hear a chorus of wailing. Instead, perhaps, could we eat less chocolate, of higher agricultural and gastronomic quality? I’d say, yes. The problem of deforestation is driven largely by quantity — demand for chocolate is higher than ever. Moderation of our consumptive desires might be part of the answer.
The scientific name for cacao is Theobroma, “God food.” I vote that we treat it as such.
…sometimes the gap between the potential for transcendent sensory delight and our culture’s delivery of this potential leaves something to be desired.