There’s something about that first satisfying snap into a bite of chocolate. It’s almost transportive. From the tropical regions where cacao is grown to the companies that produce the confections we see in the store, that chocolate had to make a journey of its own, as well.
Farmers and scientists from around the world are connecting at UC Davis to ensure this fragile bean continues to grow into one of the world’s most prolific foods for generations to come.
Students and experts are working to better understand cacao, a vital ingredient necessary not only to chocolate production, but to many people across the world.
As diverse as cacao is, so too, is the research surrounding it.
“We’re so used to going to our local grocery store, buying a bar of chocolate that is produced in North America or Europe and feeling that distance from where the cacao is actually growing, which tends to be in tropical regions of the world, typically north and south of the equator,” said geography graduate student Madeline Weeks. Weeks studies the social, economic and environmental dimensions of fine flavors of cacao and chocolate. Before starting her graduate studies, she spent two months living in Belize and Guatemala, interviewing smallholder cacao farmers, independent growers who oversee small plots of land and sell to Maya Mountain Cacao and Cacao Verapaz.
Madeline Weeks, a Geography graduate student, has been doing her research on cacao and the impact of the cocoa and chocolate made from it in Guatemala. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)
Cacao is a heritage food of Guatemala, so Weeks wanted to focus the project on specialty markets to highlight the unique quality of the cacao the smallholder producers grew and export it to the international market. Weeks partnered with the Guatemalan NGO, Fundación ProPetén to support production and commercialization of cacao in Southern Petén.
The project had two goals: On the one hand it was empowering these communities to export their own cacao.
“But the other very important aspect of the project was actually getting the women involved,” Weeks said.
Growing cacao can be a delicate process, said Howard-Yana Shapiro, Senior Fellow in the UC Davis Plant Sciences Department and chief agricultural officer at Mars, Incorporated.
“There are pests and diseases in some parts of the world that can kill the crop in two or three years,” Shapiro said. These problems become worse with climate change.
Intermittent temperature change can determine the fate of an entire season’s cacao crop, Shapiro said. The bean is also prone to a litany of diseases and viruses, with ominous names like “frosty pod” and “swollen shoot” virus.
No one knows how, or if, cacao can thrive in an environment impacted by climate change, said adjunct UC Davis professor and plant geneticist David Mackill.
“I haven’t found many people who don’t like chocolate, so I think there is going to be a continued demand for cacao,” Mackill said.
The question is: will the cacao supply continue to be there?
Mackill and other plant experts at UC Davis are researching the answers to that question. They seek to improve cacao’s resiliency in areas impacted by climate change and drought, Mackill said. They hope to develop ways of ensuring cacao’s long-term production in ways that would also benefit farmers.
Cacao forms the backbone for several countries’ economies, Shapiro said, with some 6.5 million smallholders growing the crop worldwide. Inconsistent rainfall totals and erratic temperatures due to climate change reverberate throughout the entire sector.
After 10 years of observing the effects of climate change on cacao crops, Shapiro believes scientists are now better equipped to address the issue.
“We’re supposed to be guardians of (cacao),” Shapiro said. “We’ve raised the conversation to a point where there is a recognition the word ‘sustainable’ may not be the best word anymore; we need to have a resilient crop.”
Mackill and other UC Davis researchers address cacao production through major programs that address better soil, pest and disease management, as well as better breeding techniques to develop new strains of cacao that tolerate adverse climatic effects such as drought and higher temperatures.
“It depends on genetic variability in the species that we can use to develop new strains of cacao,” Mackill said.
Mackill and his colleagues are working to develop new cacao strains to improve resilience to disease and climate change. Some strains of cacao seem more naturally predisposed to tolerate higher temperatures than others.
From left: Helene Dillard, dean of the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences; Howard Shapiro, chief agricultural officer at Mars, Inc.; distinguished UC Davis professor and plant geneticist David Mackill and Jim Carrol, Associate Vice Chancellor for Design & Construction Management look forward to construction of new greenhouses where researchers can cacao under any number of climatic conditions. (UC Davis)
“The real measure of drought tolerance is to actually compare the performance of different strains in the field condition under drought stress,” Mackill said.
Shapiro and Mackill expect these greenhouses will start conversations with scientists and farmers from all over the world about breeding, teaching and researching hundreds of plants.
“This conversation is then not a factorial of ‘twice as good,’ it’s 10-times as good to have that many eyes on it,” Shapiro said. “The ability to have that conversation is core to why we are on this campus.”
Strengthening community production
Through a Research and Innovation Fellowship for Agriculture (RIFA) grant from UC Davis, Weeks worked with a group of women called Red de Mujeres, who created a marketable product from the cacao they were already growing in their communities.
“[The Red de Mujeres] said part of what empowered them was knowing they could make their own chocolate,” Weeks said. “It’s embodying this concept of something that is from their heritage.”
Weeks also worked with the women’s group to develop new recipes that slightly modified the traditional ones passed down from previous generations. (Courtesy Madeline Weeks)
Weeks returned to Guatemala in 2017 through a Blum Center for a Developing Economies Grant, which enabled her to invite Northern California craft chocolate company, Cru Chocolate, to lead workshops centered around cacao-based recipes. With her first experience still fresh in her mind, she was thinking more clearly about cross-cultural conversations and learning more specifically about the interconnected concepts of health, food insecurity and supply chain.
Weeks envisions future smallholder farms producing chocolate products in the same countries where the cacao is grown. She hopes that experiences like hers will help emphasize the need for considering the humans involved in making chocolate.
Ripe cacao pods turn yellow on a tree located at the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory greenhouse. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)
A large — and smallholder — future
Weeks continues her conversations with the smallholders who grow the cacao that eventually becomes chocolate. She believes the chocolate industry could improve the livelihood for smallholders like the ones she worked with in Guatemala.
“They’re still figuring it out, and I want to be part of that process,” Weeks said. “I came to chocolate with certain assumptions, and certain assumptions have been broken. I am constantly learning and shifting and adapting my own conceptions.”
Because chocolate has become a global product, it can be a conduit for talking about bigger issues like inequalities, Weeks said. In other words, she sees chocolate as a conversation starter, or at the very least, a means to bring people together.
“I have more empirical understandings of how chocolate makes me happy,” Weeks said. “I think part of it is being able to share that experience with other people.”
Madeline Weeks holds a pod of cacao at the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory. (Gregory Urquiaga, UC Davis)
Josh Staab is a digital content strategist and web editor at UC Davis.