Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Chocolate: A Heritage Variety

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Biodiversity, Agriculture, Sustainability, Global Change, Biological Evolution

Ed Hessler

A Hershey chocolate bar was an occasional pleasure when I was growing up. I don't remember their price but I know that the first ones sold for $0.05 cents - a nickel -when they were first introduced in the late 1880s. I checked current prices from two stores: Walmart $1.32 and Target $1.39. That is fair amount of nickels later.

There are heirloom plants other than apples, and tomatoes. One of them is a heirloom chocolate known as Nacional, about which Heidi Brandes writes for Smithsonian, September - October 2023.  Its title is Ecuador's Gold: Can The Most Coveted Chocolate In History Help Revive Forests Around The World?

She begins by answering a question most of us would like to know. What does this heirloom chocolatet taste like? She does a splendid job but it's elusivenss remains. "Servio Pachard, one of the world's foremost cacao experts...gave a smile when the sugary chocolate...touched my tongue; I think I might have moaned in pleasure. I had never tasted chocolate like this...I could understand...why some modern-day chocoholics are willing to fork over several hundred dollars for a single bar.That's ninety-eight nickels if I calculated correctly.

The tree has a long record with farmers and it has been estimated  that it "was first cultivated more than 5000 years ago" A recent study "found that European colonists began planting Nacionals themselves in the New World roughly a century after Columbus. The variety soon attained a global reputation....  Ecuador's entry into the world economy in the 19th century was almost entirely dependent on the cocoa trade."

However, Cordes continues "in 1916, a blight ravaged cacaos...and in 1919, the witches' broom disease was thought to have finished off Nacional trees for good. ...But in 2016...the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, in collaboration with Fortunato Chocolate, an American company based in Peru, announced that it had identified cacao trees in Perus that had ancient Nacional DNA." 

This led to a partnership of "local growers and Ecuador's ecological preservationists. Jerry Toth is the "co-founder of the Third Millennium Alliance (TMA), a conservation nonprofit, and the co-founder of To'ak Chocolate, a private company that creates organically grown...chocolate using Ecuadorean cacao grown by local farmers."  ("To-ak is a portmanteau of 'earth' and 'tree from two Indigenous Ecuadorean languages.") Originally Toth aimed to "reforest degraded land."

Toth began to think that he could "do with chocolate what wine has been doing to grapes for a long time" so he "set out to find some old-growth cacao trees." To find them he joined with Servio Pachard who knows more "about old growth in Ecuador and, "a member of the Seed Guardians Network, an alliance of families working to save heirloom seeds. Pachard told Toth "he might be able to lead Toth to several Nacional cacao trees

Using modern DNA analysis the trees "proved to be 100 percent pure ancient Nacional--likely the only ones known in the country. The trees, though, were nearing the end of their life span and TMA  "established an outdoor genetic bank where an ancient technology was put to use: grafting. From these "189 clones were planted in an area "protected from cross-pollination from other varieties. Almost all of them survived. And since then they have been building on this success, perhaps being apple to "provide enough cuttings to reproduce up to 5000 pure Nacional seedlings each year."

Nacional cacoa grows more slowly than hybrid varieties so "To'ak pays at least three times the standard market rate for hybrid Nacional cacao" as well as an acerage fee for five years to Nacional tree farmers. Brandes ends her story with more details from and about farmers participating in this cacao project and the regenerative agroforestry program that has resulted.

About that To'ak bar: 1.76-ounces. A Hershey bar is 1.55 ounces.

How might this success lead to reviving forests world-wide? "The TMA genetic seed bank gives hope to those seeking to preserve other endangered tree species the world over. There are more than 840 seed banks around the globe."

Read the essay here which is fully illustrated. The opening image is golden. 
Here is the Wiki entry on the Hershey Bar and  the Wiki entry on chocolate.

No comments:

Post a Comment