The Battle to Save Chocolate
To the ancient Aztecs and Mayans, chocolate was the food of the gods—the drink of kings. Now, it’s in danger of once again becoming a luxury. The cacao tree, known officially as Theobroma cacao (actually meaning “food of the gods”), is a notoriously fragile crop, suffering from pests and diseases—black pod rot (a rotting disease caused by a fungi), witches’ broom (causes malignant growths), frosty pod rot (another rotting disease), among others. These afflictions spoil approximately a quarter of the world’s yearly harvest of the cacao tree, and have been known to devastate entire regions. Brazil was the top cocoa exporter in the 1980s, but then witches’ broom destroyed the entire industry, and so production shifted to West and central Africa, where 70% of the world’s cocoa crop is grown today. Other influential factors in the decline of the cacao tree are unfair trade and environmental issues—profits rarely come back to the cacao farmers, and crop-growing land is slowly being destroyed and becoming infertile. Cacao trees used to live for 100 years—now, they’re lucky if they reach 30. Researchers are battling to save the tree by analysing its genome: understanding the tree’s inner workings could lead to successful breeding programs, producing drought- and disease-resistant varieties, and possibly quintupling the output of beans per acre. Without this research and pushes for fairer profit sharing, chocolate could become as rare as caviar, unaffordable to the average person—so you can thank science for your chocolate.
(Image Credit: 1, 2, 3)