CO­COA THE CURE-ALL: GOOD FOR HEARTS, MINDS AND SMALL-IS­LAND ECONOMIES

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Janeka Si­mon

I’ve al­ways loved choco­late. I grew up on choco­late bars, ra­tioned out in sen­si­ble doses by my par­ents so as to avoid tooth de­cay, obe­sity, and teenage acne. Or so I was told. The best thing about Easter con­tin­ues to be achingly sweet Cad­bury crème eggs, although nowa­days I buy them singly in­stead of in 3-packs like when I was younger. Dou­ble choco­late cook­ies from the su­per­mar­ket deli are a tonic for the soul, and be­fore I went low-carb I al­ways kept a box of bak­ing choco­late squares in the pantry for when I felt like mak­ing Sun­day brown­ies. Co­coa tea has al­ways been my leisurely morn­ing bev­er­age of choice, mixed with cof­fee the next morn­ing for a mocha caf­feine kick. And Co­coa is in­fused in my mas­sage oil, co­coa but­ter my home­made skin mois­tur­izer, hair po­made and lip balm (and in a lot of my store-bought prod­ucts as well).

2010 es­ti­mates in­di­cate a global an­nual con­sump­tion of 3.6 mil­lion tonnes of co­coa prod­ucts, ris­ing in 2011 and 2012, in the mid­dle of a global fi­nan­cial cri­sis. That’s just over one pound of choco­late per year for ev­ery man, woman and child on this planet in a time when dis­pos­able in­comes are ex­tremely limited.

So when Barry Calle­beaut, the world’s largest choco­late man­u­fac­turer, re­cently ex­pressed grave con­cerns about the abil­ity of the world’s co­coa sup­ply to keep up with the enor­mous and grow­ing de­mand for that sweet con­fec­tion that comes from unas­sum­ing, slimy beans, it came as no sur­prise to many.

In fact, as early as 2012, then pres­i­dent of Mars Choco­late UK, Fiona Daw­son warned that by 2020, there will be a short­age of as much as 1 mil­lion tonnes of prod­uct in the choco­late sup­ply chain. The world’s cur­rent sup­ply of co­coa is al­ready woe­fully in­ad­e­quate to meet the de­mand, and the im­bal­ance will only get worse if cur­rent trends con­tinue.

So just where is our mul­ti­mil­lion dol­lar co­coa in­dus­try? How could it be pos­si­ble that our tiny is­land is not profit­ing from this grower’s mar­ket, when the best choco­late­grow­ing re­gion in the world is not even pro­duc­ing ap­pre­cia­ble amounts of the pre­cious com­mod­ity? The rich vol­canic soils of the Caribbean ar­chi­pel­ago are ex­cel­lently suited for the Trini­tario type of co­coa tree, a happy ac­ci­dent of cross-fer­til­iza­tion which mar­ried the fine, del­i­cate flavour of the frag­ile Cen­tral Amer­i­can Cri­ollo trees with the hardy brash­ness of African Forestaro. Choco­late is much like wine, with its flavour com­ing in large part from the ter­roir of the land where it is grown, and the ex­perts all agree that Caribbean choco­late, and St. Lu­cian choco­late in par­tic­u­lar, is the best.

It is some­thing of an open se­cret in the choco­late world that th­ese is­lands are where the del­i­cate red fruit flavours in the Trini­tario are brought to full vi­brancy, burst­ing out of the co­coa beans and into the pre­pared choco­late prod­ucts with almost in­de­cent bold­ness. Our choco­late is in so much de­mand that the largest Bri­tish lux­ury choco­late company bought a his­toric Soufriere es­tate and lov­ingly re­ha­bil­i­tated its de­crepit co­coa stock, re­fresh­ing the trees with grafts of thor­ough­bred co­coa grown in a Trinida­dian tis­sue cul­ture lab. The same company has poured con­sid­er­able re­sources into push­ing for­ward re­search and tech­nol­ogy de­vel­op­ment in the field. It is qui­etly grow­ing a net­work of co­coa farm­ers who are com­mit­ted to grow­ing top qual­ity prod­uct, and it has signed con­tracts with them so that it can hoover up ev­ery last pre­cious bean that our famers can grow.

Saint Lu­cian choco­late has its own cor­ner of Bor­ough Mar­ket, the most fa­mous food mar­ket in Eng­land, where it is mixed with chillis and lavender and sea salt in all sorts of ex­otic com­bi­na­tions. The plainest bars of our is­land’s de­li­cious choco­late can com­mand north­wards of £6 apiece at re­tail lo­ca­tions.

The prob­lem with this sales model, although it is a won­der­ful first step, is that apart from the farm­ers, all the money in the value chain is be­ing made by a for­eign company. The in­vest­ment and im­pe­tus they have pro­vided in re­viv­ing an almost moribund agri­cul­tural prod­uct can­not be glossed over, but the cur­rent global mar­ket is such that there is room for many more play­ers in the co­coa game.

His­tor­i­cally, the is­lands have been used as re­source ex­trac­tion economies by colo­nial pow­ers, and our economies are still set up to work as monocrop ex­porters. How­ever, global eco­nomic con­cerns re­quire us to put some ef­fort into re­duc­ing food im­ports. The cur­rent monocrop, ba­nanas, uses valu­able arable land in a mo­nop­o­lis­tic fash­ion, true to its sta­tus. Co­coa can func­tion more as a ma­jor crop, with other crops in­ter­planted over, un­der and be­tween the trees.

So why didn’t we do that in the first place?

And it’s easy. Co­coa trees, once they have grad­u­ated from the nurs­ery and earned a spot in the earth, are much eas­ier to care for than are ba­nana plants. There’s no need for reg­u­lar pes­ti­cide ap­pli­ca­tions once the trees are kept happy and healthy and grown in a sus­tain­able, eco­log­i­cally friendly man­ner. The grow­ing co­coa pods do not need any sort of spe­cial cov­er­ing – the only pro­tec­tion they re­ally need is a team of war­rior cats to keep ro­dents un­der con­trol and care­ful mon­i­tor­ing, prun­ing and burn­ing of any branch in­fested with one of co­coa’s as­so­ci­ated fun­gal dis­eases. The in­tro­duc­tion of graft­ing tech­nol­ogy means that a newly planted tree will take as lit­tle as eigh­teen months to start fruit­ing, com­pared to three to five years when grown from seed.

Co­coa is bet­ter for the en­vi­ron­ment, too. Bet­ter root sys­tems means that plant­ing co­coa on a hill­side won’t in­evitably lead to land­slides. Har­vest­ing co­coa is easy, with no del­i­cacy con­sid­er­a­tions to take into ac­count. Fer­ment­ing and dry­ing, the two most tech­ni­cally dif­fi­cult parts of the process, can be eas­ily cen­tral­ized to con­trol qual­ity and are also ex­tremely low-tech and low cost.

So how can St. Lu­cia and the rest of the OECS make the tran­si­tion to co­coa-nomics? Our agri­cul­ture sec­tors are such that gov­ern­ment pol­icy plays an over­whelm­ingly large role in our pro­duc­tion. Gov­ern­ments need to in­cen­tivize co­coa pro­duc­tion, pos­si­bly with the for­ma­tion of a Co­coa Pro­duc­ers’ So­ci­ety. Talks with bulk pur­chasers on a na­tional scale should se­cure com­mit­ments for min­i­mum quan­ti­ties of dried beans or even bulk choco­late. Mean­while, ca­pac­ity for high end choco­late mak­ing must be built up in or­der to keep the value chain lo­cal. The bulk of the money in choco­late is not with Nes­tle, but in cre­at­ing and own­ing niche mar­ket brands that are ex­otic and high-end. Cou­pled with a co-oper­a­tive mar­ket­ing strat­egy, St. Lu­cian choco­late made in St. Lu­cia would have no prob­lem com­mand­ing top dol­lar and oc­cu­py­ing space in Whole Foods or John Lewis.

The de­mand for co­coa is so great that even with­out gov­ern­ment as­sis­tance, in­di­vid­ual landown­ers can invest in plant­ing or re­plant­ing their fields with co­coa with­out fear. Lo­cal and re­gional buy­ers abound, and the big play­ers who are buy­ing land and set­ting up their own es­tates al­ways have room for more beans. In short, the time has never been bet­ter to invest in co­coa as an agri­cul­tural ex­port crop.

And the time has never been worse not to.

Hot Bakes and Co­coa Tea any­one?

Co­coa Nibs from the Rabot Es­tate in Soufriere.

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