Now that we are (fingers crossed) turning the corner on covid, it seems timely to take a step back and think about the way diseases impact our history and culture.
Most wine aficionados are aware that in the 19th century European wine was almost destroyed by phylloxera. And anyone partial to bananas is aware that disease destroyed our favourite banana of the 1950s and 1960s (the Gran Michel) and the same may well occur with today’s favourite banana; the Cavendish.
But few people are aware that chocolate too has suffered from diseases as disastrous as phylloxera with gruesome names like ‘swollen shoots’, ‘vascular streak dieback’, ‘witches’ broom’ and ‘frosty pod rot’. And as cacao spread around the world it’s also been afflicted by pests like cocoa tree mirids in Africa (Salhbergella singularis and Distantiella theobroma) or cocoa pod borer (Conopomorpha cramerella) in Southeast Asia. Indeed chocolate may well have been the first crop targeted by bioterrorism back in the 1990s.
And Europe’s insatiable desire for drinking chocolate in the 17th and 18th centuries, combined with disease, led to cocoa cultivation shifting from Mexico, Honduras and Belize to Venezuela, Ecuador and the Caribbean. Disease, and the near extermination of the indigenous Mayans, Aztecs and other peoples, also lead to the abuses and horrors of the Atlantic slave trade and use of slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean for cacao cultivation.
Ironically the (partial) conquest of other diseases, in particular malaria, also explains how cocoa spread to Africa, and again became entwined with slavery.
Today chocolate still struggles with ongoing issues of labour abuses, including slavery. And chocolate confectionery, via excessive sugar, is leading to a host of disastrous 21st diseases for young and old alike. The obesity epidemic, soaring rates of diabetes, heart diseases and many other ‘modern’ diseases can directly be attributed to chocolate confectionery products that are over 50% sugar.
At the same time, it’s not all a story of doom, gloom and disaster. Chocolate can also show some glimmers of hope. Learning to savour craft chocolate provides one means to avoid sugar related diseases. And the diversity of cocoa varietals treasured by craft chocolate provides one of the best defences to cocoa’s next phylloxera.
Read on for more, and see below for some bars that track the way disease has driven chocolate’s journey around the world.
Disease, Slavery, and the Emergence of Drinking Chocolate in Europe
It took Europeans over a century to realise the delights of drinking chocolate from when Cortez and the conquistadors first witnessed Montezuma’s drinking-chocolate-fuelled exploits with his wives as they ransacked Mexico from 1519 (note: Columbus came across chocolate a decade earlier, but thought it was primarily a unit of currency).
By the time appreciation for chocolate had taken hold (i.e. the mid to late 1600s), many of the locations in Mesoamerica (Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, etc.) where cocoa had been drunk and cultivated had seen jaw dropping population declines. Smallpox and a host of other European diseases ravaged Mesoamerica; in some cases wiping out 60% plus of the population in the decades following Columbus (Guatemala shrank from over 2 million people to under 500,000 in 30 years, El Salvador from 500,000 to under 70,000 in the same time period).
As a consequence, the descendants of the conquistadors turned to South America, in particular Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela, for their cocoa needs. The descendants of the conquistadors needed far more cacao. So they developed a radically different approach, a plantation like system known as the ‘encomienda’, to cultivate cacao in Brazil and Venezuela. And the bedrock to the encomienda system was slavery of not just the few remaining indigenous peoples but also slaves from the Atlantic slave trade.
Ironically, what ended the encomienda system (including its use of slavery) in Venezuela was disease. This time the disease was one that impacted the cacao tree, called at the time ‘alhorra’ and now thought to have been either ‘ceratocystis eilt’ or ‘black pod rot’. Either way the disease was recorded by contemporaries to leave cacao groves “without a single fruit-bearing plant”. And as a consequence, new pastures and lands were sought.
Note: Mexico still produces some amazing chocolates, see Cacao Prieto and Mucho; and amazing cocoa is grown there (see here for some bars from Original Beans, Bonnat, Ritual, Krak and a dozen more makers). And, see below, it has an encouraging diversity of cocoa varieties which provides one means to fight these diseases. As do Brazil and Venezuela, again, see below for more bars from Franchesci, Åkesson’s etc.
Cacao Diseases and the Dissemination of Cocoa to the Caribbean, Asia and Africa
Faced with these cacao blights and diseases in South America and the increasing popularity of drinking chocolate, colonial powers, especially Spain, the UK, and the Netherlands, successfully transplanted cacao trees throughout the Caribbean and Asia, and then Africa.
Although there are records of cacao being grown in Trinidad as early as the 1525, it wasn’t until the late 1670s that cacao trees, brought over from Venezuela, were cultivated as a commercial crop. As in Venezuela, Trinidad also suffered from various cacao blights and diseases until new cacao varietals were cross bred and cacao farming flourished. In honour of this achievement Trinidad lent its name to a family of these disease resistant beans, ‘Trinitario’. Cacao was also cultivated on other nearby islands, including Tobago, Grenada and Jamaica. And by the 1820s, the Caribbean (and in particular Trinidad and Tobago) was the third largest exporter of cacao; helped ironically by a series of other blights and diseases that damaged cacao cultivation in Brazil, Venezuela and Ecuador, before Trinidad’s cacao was again devastated in the 1920s.
At the same time as cacao was introduced to Trinidad, the Spanish also introduced chocolate to the Philippines. And soon after the Dutch, in an effort to wrest control over the cacao trade, also introduced cacao to some of their Indonesian colonies (most notably Java and Sulawesi).
Cacao cultivation in Africa really took off in the second half of the 19th century. Initially cacao was cultivated on the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, which by the late 1870s were accounting for over 20% of global cacao crops, and over 50% of Cadbury’s cacao needs. Sadly this cultivation was again based off slavery (for more see here).
What drove cacao to these African countries was again partly the appearance of devastating cacao diseases. Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Costa Rica and the other South American cacao growing powerhouses all suffered from a series of blights and diseases, going by dramatic names including frosty pod and witches’ broom.
Disease, or rather the (partial) conquest of one endemic African disease, also made cacao cultivation possible. Until the late 19th century the white colonial powers had been unable to colonise more than the coast of Africa as their armies and administrators had no resistance to malaria (during the 17th and 18th centuries it is estimated that over 60% of Europeans visiting the hinterlands of Africa died within a year). However, the discovery of quinine made the colonisation of Africa possible and so in the late 19th century various ‘white nations’ conquered Ghana (Great Britain), Cameroon (Germany), Cote D’Ivoire (France), etc.
Bioterrorism in 1990s Brazil
In the 1990s cacao farmers in Brazil were facing a calamity so severe that they were hanging themselves and drinking rat poison to kill themselves. Yet a decade earlier Brazil was the world’s third largest grower of cacao, and it made farmers rich (although the plight of the workers was wretched). But in the early 1990s, Moniliophthora perniciosa (aka witches’ broom) was discovered in Bahia, Brazil.
Witches’ broom isn’t native to Bahia, Brazil. Like cacao itself it originated in the Amazonian rainforest. But in the Amazon, it cannot quickly spread as wild cacao trees are well separated from one another. But when witches’ broom reaches dense plantations of cocoa trees, the impact is disastrous; Trinidad and Venezuela lost 80% plus of their cacao trees in outbreaks from the 1920s to the 1940s (Venezuelan cacao then also was hammered by frosty pod and ceratocystis to add to its problems).
From the first instances of witches’ broom in Bahia in the 1990s, suspicions were raised of a deliberate infestation. The first trees to be impacted in many estates were in the middle, not the outskirts, of plantations; and as an eyewitness reported: “I found two cocoa trees with dry witches’ broom tied onto them in the middle of their trunks” (José Roberto Benjamin, a farm owner in Camacan, quoted in The Knot).
And then in 2006 an even more extraordinary claim was published. Luiz Franco Timoteo claimed that he, and other left wing activists, in an effort to draw attention to the dire conditions of the cacao workers in Bahia, deliberately introduced witches’ broom, with the help of workers from CEPLAC; the Brazilian equivalent of DEFRA (UK) or the FDA (US), as CEPLAC “could go anywhere” (which explains how the disease spread in such an extraordinary way).
CEPLAC vigorously contests these assertions. And it clearly did make extraordinary efforts to destroy the disease; including fumigating cacao farms with Agent Orange. And other conspiracy theories have also been circulated (including the idea that Ghana or the Cote D’Ivoire indulged in agro-warfare).
The origin of witches’ broom in Bahia is still unsolved. But the dangers of bioterrorism, and threats posed by cacao diseases to mass, monoculture agricultural approaches to cacao, is clear.
Why does this matter? Chocolate and Disease: The Present Day
So the good news is that Bahia, Brazil is slowly recovering, and whilst cacao production is nowhere near its earlier levels, it is enabling some farmers and many makers to craft great bars (see here for some from Åkesson’s own operations there).
In part this is because scientists have discovered wild cacao varietals deep in the Amazonian rainforest that can resist witches’ broom (indeed one, called Scavina-6, was identified as early as 1940s in the Peruvian rainforest). And CRISPR is now also being used to try and avoid some frightening new diseases threatening African and Asian cocoa farmers. At the same time these clones have major issues; for more see here on CCN-51.
Without wishing to sound melodramatic, commodity cacao and mass produced chocolate are an existential threat through their reliance on agricultural monocultures, their use of slash and burn agriculture combined with their requirement for loads of fertilizers, pesticides, etc. We need to learn from the disasters foretold by the Gran Michel, and now Cavendish, banana. We need to promote more cacao varietals and delight in chocolate’s myriad of flavours to protect genetic diversity. And we need to protect the rainforest, not destroy it with slash and burn monocrop agricultural commodity cacao and mass produced chocolate where flavour and taste is all added in the factory.
The end product of this commoditised cacao; mass produced chocolate confectionery; is also causing a whole series of other human diseases ranging from early onset type 2 diabetes, heart and liver issues, obesity, cancers, etc. Pretty packaging, smart marketing, evocative slogans (even those claiming to “eradicate child slavery”) should not divert from the fact that most supermarket chocolate bars are over 50% sugar (including Tony’s). As a flavour enhancer sugar is awesome. But it’s also highly addictive and unhealthy.
So if you want to help eradicate the diseases to (and from) cacao and save our planet please savour craft chocolate.