Wor­ry­ing news for choco­holics

Argyllshire Advertiser - - FEATURE - DOROTHY H CRAW­FORD

Al­most ev­ery­one loves choco­late. Be it in break­fast ce­re­als, drinks, con­fec­tionery, cakes, desserts or even savoury dishes, choco­late’s en­tic­ingly ad­dic­tive, lux­u­ri­ant flavour has spawned a multi-bil­lion­dol­lar in­dus­try.

The bad news is that a world short­age of choco­late is pre­dicted by 2020.

Choco­late is made from beans of co­coa trees – the obroma ca­cao – that are na­tive to rain­forests in the Ama­zon basin in South Amer­ica, where they have been do­mes­ti­cated for around 3,600 years.

To­day most com­mer­cial co­coa comes from plan­ta­tions in West Africa where a decline in pro­duc­tiv­ity is the cause of the pre­dicted world co­coa famine.

Raw co­coa straight from the bean is hor­ri­bly bitter and, for cen­turies, at­tempts have been made to breed more palat­able beans. One cul­ti­vated va­ri­ety called Cri­ollo pro­duces less bitter co­coa with a soughtafter nutty flavour and so com­mands high prices in the mar­ket­place.

But trees bred specif­i­cally for flavour are not nec­es­sar­ily re­sis­tant to dis­eases or well adapted to lo­cal soil or weather con­di­tions.

Now cul­ti­vated trees are age­ing rapidly, be­com­ing less pro­duc­tive and more dis­ease-prone, and many tra­di­tional co­coa farm­ers in West Africa are switch­ing to grow­ing rub­ber as a more lu­cra­tive al­ter­na­tive.

But don’t de­spair, help is at hand. Sci­en­tists at­tempt­ing to ad­dress the prob­lems af­fect­ing co­coa pro­duc­tion have an­a­lysed the DNA from 200 co­coa trees, in­clud­ing wild and do­mes­ti­cated va­ri­eties. This ex­er­cise has un­cov­ered many mu­ta­tions in trees of dif­fer­ent cul­ti­vars and par­tic­u­larly so in Cri­ollo trees where in­ten­sive breed­ing has caused an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of mu­ta­tions that have weak­ened the stock.

This data bank of DNA se­quences can now be used to re­veal the ge­netic di­ver­sity of co­coa trees, which should then her­ald sci­en­tific breed­ing pro­grammes that en­sure the ro­bust­ness of wild trees is main­tained in any com­mer­cial cul­ti­vars.

With this in place, I am sure your favourite choco­lates will be avail­able for decades to come.

Are the ca­cao trees dy­ing out?

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