Worrying news for chocoholics
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?