Holy hot chocolate!
green pod The cacao tree, the source of chocolate, is a native of Amazonian rain forests, and it grows best in hot, humid and shady conditions. About six years after planting, the tree produces fruits shaped like small footballs growing directly from the trunk or large branches. Each fruit contains about 40 seeds roughly the size of lima beans. These seeds are fermented inside a sweet pulp, then roasted and ground to make cocoa.

An unsung Central American probably discovered how to ferment and roast cacao beans a millennium or two ago by accident. In time, chocolate attained holy status among the ancient inhabitants of Central America and Mexico. "The cacao tree was the embodiment of the Earth's treasures and spiritually represented a link between Earth and the heavens," wrote entomologist and chocolate expert Allen Young of the Milwaukee Public Museum in "The Chocolate Tree" (see bibliography).

The Spanish brought chocolate back to Europe and kept it secret for a century. After Great Britain's first chocolate manufacturing plant opened in 1730, a huge candy industry based itself on the irresistible flavor: Mints. Nougats. Bars. Truffles. Drinks. Cakes and frostings. To adapt a famous advertising slogan, "Without chocolate, life itself would be impossible."

Chocolate soothed egos, stimulated ids, and put Hershey, Pa., on the map. It entered the culture as a lover's gift. In the old world, as in the new, it reached almost religious status: Carolus Linnaeus, who originated scientific naming of species, called the tree Theobroma cacao. Theobroma translates as "food of the gods."

A fly in the ointment
Sadly, chocolate also has its share of non-human admirers: fungi with such fearsome names as black pod disease and witches-broom fungus. Black pod disease, a relative of the fungus that caused the 1848 Irish potato famine, cuts cocoa quality and quantity. It's now near Ivory Coast, the source of more than one-third the world's cocoa. Another fungus, monilia, devastated the Costa Rican crop about 20 years ago.

brown podCoping with disease is nothing new for cacao farmers, Young says. "Fungal diseases have been around for a long time, especially in the New World." Researchers have sought resistant varieties and farmers sometimes use fungicides, but probably the biggest response has been simply planting virgin land. Over history, cacao growers have moved around the humid tropics in the search for disease-free land.

But rain forests have been under siege for decades. The last year was especially bad, as El Nino fueled droughts and huge forest and range fires in Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Today, "voting with your feet" is no longer a viable solution, Young says. "It's fair to say that there's only a finite amount of suitable forest habitat, and it will run out." Instead of cultivating new forests, he says, "the answer is not to go down that path any further, but to solve the problem where it exists, to tackle in a creative manner the disease and pest problems in major cacao-growing areas."

You say you want an evolution...
Going against the trend of high-tech, ever-more specialized agriculture (genetic engineering of crops comes to mind) Young advocates basing cultivation on cacao's evolutionary background. In the Amazonian rain forest, long before the first "Kit Kat" rolled off an assembly line, cacao existed in scattered clumps.

yellow podInstead of moving to large monocultures -- vast tracts of trees growing alone or in the shade of larger trees -- Young suggests that the cocoa industry plant trees in relatively undisturbed rain forest where less disease should translate into lower pesticide expenditures. And there's another advantage: in these forests, the mass of decomposing crud on the ground offers rent-free housing to the swarms of tiny midges that (despite being related to the infamous biting flies called no-see-ums) are essential cacao pollinators.

As far as the forest is concerned, anything that preserves remnants of tropical rain forest -- even the beat-up, logged-over scraps that Young is considering -- could also help preserve the incredible biodiversity of the rain forest -- and take pressure off the virgin forest by giving an alternate place to grow cacao. Can a replay of "Back to the Future" help the chocolate crunch?

The Why Files
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